Dad

“You were the apple of your father’s eye the second you popped out,” Mom told me. “He was instantly smitten.” 

When I was small, my world revolved around Dad, and he around me. Once my mother married her second husband John (I was five), Dad had a band of lovely women he dated, but I was the locus of attention. He was indulgent, his sternness rare, and obviously pained him when it occurred.  What I couldn’t understand until much later was that whatever guidance I might have needed as a child was going to be tempered by Dad’s relationship with his own mother, who—once he extricated himself from her clutches—made anything resembling discipline or meddling abhorrent to him. 

Edna, a beautiful and neurotic young woman, met my grandfather Charles Leslie Moone (Charlie) and swept him off his feet. A retiring soul with little to say, Charlie still conjured the words to ask Edna’s hand in marriage. He was an up-and-coming executive at Borden Dairy, while she was a one-time debutante with no more Coming Out parties to be had. 

  Flowers for a Mourning Woman , oil on canvas, 1963

Flowers for a Mourning Woman, oil on canvas, 1963

A couple years after they married, Dad was born, and the family fell into a miserable routine of Charlie’s silence versus Edna’s nagging and harping. Grandpa Charlie was too polite to tell Edna to shut up, so the one-sided conversation about Edna’s disappointment with her lot in life was ceaseless. Her karmic due was a starring role on Broadway—though as far as I know she never took acting classes—and the adoring worship of swooning fans. Instead she had a quiet husband and a bookish son in Columbus, Ohio, none of which completed the picture she had in her head of the way things were supposed to be. “She thought she was nobility,” Dad rolled his eyes, “and her prince was a dud.” Dad’s lifetime obsession with books began here, as he retreated from Edna into stories and tales from around the world. It was also how Dad honed his skills at selective hearing—a skill which drove the rest of us completely crazy. 

After Charlie could no longer take it, he did the unthinkable: he filed for divorce. He took his son with him, and if the story ended here, Dad may have been a very different man. Instead, out of vindictiveness and hostility, Edna filed for custody of Dad, though he was perfectly happy where he was. The courts awarded Edna sole custody after she and Charlie’s housekeeper conspired to make Charlie out to be an ogre with a history of indiscretions. (After the divorce, he began living with a woman named Lynn, to whom he was married until the end of his life. It was hardly an indiscretion—but it was enough to give leverage to Edna in the eyes of the courts.)

When Dad was small, Edna dressed him in little tailored suits and hard shoes, and “Bunny” wasn’t allowed to play outside lest he get dirty. A smudge was enough to end the fun, and she kept him in Little Lord Fauntleroy get-ups as though he was a doll. Now alone with Edna in an apartment as the only child of a failed marriage in which she felt herself the injured party, Dad continued in part as a proxy husband, or in service as a manservant. With a captive audience of one, Edna rattled on to Dad about what a horrible person his father was, or endlessly slighted the whore he took up with. “Edna could talk the back legs off a donkey,” my mother told me. “She just never shut up.” 

“I learned to cook in self-defense,” was Dad’s oft-repeated statement about Edna’s skills in the kitchen. A willfully terrible cook, too gentrified to get dirty in the kitchen—though her own mother Carrie was an excellent one—Dad began making the family supper by the time he was twelve. “I had a limited menu, but it was better than what she cooked. Baked potatoes and pork chops, steak, a few vegetables. Simple things, but edible.” 

His teen years were spent between excelling in English and literature, failing in math and the sciences, and trying to keep his sanity around Edna’s ceaseless tide of chatter and complaints. He went to college at Ohio Wesleyan and Edna followed him—even becoming the den mother of his fraternity, both to fulfill her dream of being around fawning young men, and to keep a watchful eye on her son. 

Finally, Dad enlisted in the Air Force where Edna could not follow. He was stationed in Oklahoma, and his bond with Edna was severed for the first time. Dad was ecstatic.

 

If Dad’s childhood was one marked by loneliness, isolation and premature adulthood, mine was freedom personified. A child of the late Sixties and born to two artists, whatever I thought might be a good idea became one: I climbed on everything, wore whatever I wanted (including nothing), painted, drew, made messes, was a complete slob, got dirty, never brushed my hair. I traversed the 3-inch catwalk around our stairwell over and over, elevated ten feet above the landing; thankfully I never fell. I rode down the wooden stairs on blankets or pillows, I never cleaned up after myself, I ate or didn’t, I climbed on the counters with bare feet to rifle through the cabinets for cookies. I was one step away from Lord of the Flies, though the moon and sun hung in the sky whenever Dad wished it. 

A couple of years into my mother’s second marriage, I came home from visiting her one weekend to discover another woman’s stuff littering Dad’s house. Dad had, in a moment of charitable lust, offered a room to a student of his who had just been turned out of her apartment. 

It became clear over the next year that the tenant wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon, and that I had gained a stepmother named Kelly, an enthusiastic and quirky young woman who adored my father and created all manner of oddball crafts for me. Though their age-difference widened the eyes of her family, and their romance was unconventional (Who moves in with someone before the first date?) Dad was completely smitten and they were married about a year after she showed up on our doorstep. Ten-and-a-half months after that, when I was eight years old and accustomed to a singleton’s lifestyle, my brother Christopher was born.

  Chris in the Mirror , acrylic on canvas, circa 1982

Chris in the Mirror, acrylic on canvas, circa 1982

Eight years is a broad gap to bridge in a sibling relationship. I loved the little monkey, but we had few shared experiences as the basis of a close relationship. I was always ahead of him in school; we never shared friends, or rooms, or toys. We didn’t have petty rivalries because we never wanted the same things. I was a lackadaisical guardian when Dad and Kelly put me in charge: I served a lot of boxed macaroni and cheese dinners to him when Dad was working (or in Kelly’s case, going to graduate school), and then I promptly ignored him. He was composed enough that he fairly well raised himself when I was on duty.

Chris and I were only children raised under the same roof. 

 

If the break-up with my mother Jane was relatively uncomplicated by emotional fallout, the marriage dissolution with Kelly was one from which Dad never really recovered. There was a level of compatibility Dad found with Kelly that he never had with other women in his life. They just loved being together, to talk, or hang out. They created fun projects together, landscaped our yard to create a wonderland, remodeled our profoundly outdated house in a project that stretched over months, or years, but one with which they found great enjoyment. They liked to hash out design problems together, to build things, draw together, to talk about dance troupes. They were true companions.

As the marriage waned, Dad was heartsick, but had no idea how to heal the wounds or fix the relationship; his defensive reaction of clamming up worked against him in his quest to keep his second marriage afloat, and Kelly left—first into the relationship which she had maintained for a couple years before she moved out of our family home, and then into another country when she and Chris moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was fifteen years old; Chris was seven.

After their divorce, Chris and I lost our shared experience for many years. By the time Chris moved back to Colorado after some time with Kelly in Halifax, I had flown the coop to make my shaky way into adulthood: I moved to Seattle, wallowed about, got into trouble, dated horrible people. Separate but equal, we were still fond of each other, though being older I bossed Chris about, gave him advice he didn’t want, told him not to hang out with my friends after I moved away (he ignored me), and provided an object lesson in how not to live life, a lesson that he heeded well.

For his part, Chris went away to a boarding school for the arts, learned stagecraft, made bad decisions of his own, and then threw himself into the world of filmmaking. With remarkable poise for someone so young, my brother began crafting a career for himself with very little guidance from anyone—anyone except Dad, who Chris would call for advice, or support, or ideas when Chris had run out of them himself. Dad was always there, and always had a good word for Chris, and Chris availed himself of the resource gratefully. 

What Chris and I shared from childhood was our dependence upon Dad, who had, through thick and thin, been our champions. Dad had been a single father after two failed marriages, at a time when single fatherhood was practically unheard of, both ex-wives choosing new lives without much room for children in them. But for Dad, there was no other path: the one passion about which he never wavered was having kids. He never foundered in his love for us, or his commitment, and we returned his dedication with a devotion that bordered on hero worship. 

If we had one thing in common, it was how much we both loved Dad.

 

Lars and I met in the summer of 1995 under modern fairy tale circumstances: Lars was in a band I went to see. I was between moves on my way to college, stopping in Seattle for a couple of months before I went to Evergreen State; Lars was in town with his band for one night before going on to Spokane. I was steadfastly single, too, having had profoundly unpleasant relationships over the years; I had promised myself “no more flings,” and “no more musicians,” both having historically turned into crappy relationships with deadbeats or worse. I decided that growing a spine was more important than sharing my life with the psychos I was predisposed to attracting. 

But when Lars and I met, I threw the “no more musicians” clause out the window as quickly as I could. We courted each other passionately across state lines and over his band’s tour, eventually winding up in the same city to live out what we knew would be the rest of our lives. 

For the first time, both Dad and my mother Jane condoned my choice in men: when they met Lars, Mom wanted to hand us money to elope in Las Vegas, but my stepfather John told her it was meddlesome and to leave well enough alone. It wasn’t necessary anyway; we fled to Reno over spring break eight months after we met and had our nuptials performed by the chauffeur who drove our sparkly, baby blue limo to the carnation pink Heart of Reno chapel.     

Dad loved Lars. Both bookish, politically-minded lefties with keen intellects and mordant humor, the two of them were delighted with their winnings from the in-law roulette wheel. Perhaps their easy relationship was further enhanced by Dad’s knowledge of what could have been; not one of my previous boyfriends elicited much but eye-rolling and baleful stares, and he certainly wasn’t excited about hosting them for holidays. Dad loved Lars for Lars, but was relieved for me. He must have heaved an enormous sigh of relief when he watched me bloom into adulthood with him.

His children and his students were the beneficiaries in Dad’s failed relationships. The hole left behind where great love should have been he channeled into his work and his kids; the sadness he experienced in his missed opportunities and unhappy relationships he focused as a beam of creative energy and boundless passion for teaching and parenting. I know I benefitted from his losses, and at the end of his life I wished I could have given him the great romance retroactively.

But one cannot choose to give someone happiness.

 

After Lars and I settled in the Northwest, I began a slow but relentless campaign to get Dad to move closer to us. Every phone call was peppered with the blunt query, “When you moving, Pop?” to which he would reply gruffly, “I don’t know—Jesus,” and we would move on to some other subject. Dad retired from teaching in 1998 and began painting in earnest, traveling, visiting with friends. He had the perfect situation for a full-time artist: freedom, time and an old converted storefront in Denver, one half of which was dedicated studio space. Despite my persistent nagging, I couldn’t really compete. I had nothing on offer that gave Dad a good reason to leave it behind; we marked Dad's seventieth birthday with a huge party and he seemed no closer to being uprooted. 

Only after giving Dad a grandson did the mortar give way. Once Dad met Milo, he turned the thought over in his mind in earnest; something in that old heart of his broke when he saw his tiny grandson wiggle and twitch in his arms and he wanted to be closer. Even still, it took another couple of years to make the final steps, smoked like a badger out of his den. 

                 Quick sketch, no date

                Quick sketch, no date

And once Dad was here, I wondered if I had made a mistake. He left all his friends in Colorado and, though a remarkable showman on stage in front of a roomful of students, he was cripplingly shy about reaching out to strangers in his new city, Portland, Oregon. He stuck a flyer on his refrigerator for a drop-in life drawing class, but he never went. I’m sure he argued with himself about it and in the end his shier, smaller self won out over the brave and fearless professor. I felt personally responsible for putting him in this lonelier life. Friends from Colorado and New York and Seattle would visit, but once the dust settled behind them, Dad’s house was quiet.

It wasn’t until he contracted a vicious case of pneumonia that I realized it wasn’t just quaint ideals of family that brought us together. What might have drawn Dad to Portland was his grandchild, but the real payoff was me dragging Dad to the emergency room when he couldn’t figure out for himself how sick he was. He was quietly expiring in his own house and, because he never had much truck with doctors nor many medical needs he had ever attended before, Dad was unsure how to take care of himself. I found him a general practitioner nearby, drove him to visits, made sure his prescriptions were filled. Dad spent that summer on the mend, shocked and surprised at both his infirmity, which he had never experienced before, and his dependence upon me; this from a man who had been so independent over his life that it might have been a contributing factor in his failed romances.

I suppose it was just preamble for what came later.

What began as a routine complaint of getting old seemingly turned into terminal cancer overnight. And Dad’s diagnosis spurred me to write again after years of not doing so. As a result, our next year played out in stories I wrote about Dad as I tried to make sense of our lives and his life which was ending, which Dad would then read and respond with his own observations, up until the point he could no longer write at all. Now I write without him, without his observations, and I miss him.

  Milo, Portland  pencil on paper, 3.5" x 5.5," 2004

Milo, Portland pencil on paper, 3.5" x 5.5," 2004

Common story, dying. But our methods of dealing with it were uncommon enough that friends and loved ones began questioning their own relationships—not just with their families, but with death and dying. I don’t know if the way we dealt with Dad’s oncoming deadline was sane or not, but it was the only way we knew how to do it: with open eyes and unflinching realism, just like Dad did with everything else.

 

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