My father and I
I remember my father as a man with too much energy. Many of my recollections of him involve some fix-up job he was doing around the house. I recall late nights with the Los Angeles Dodgers playing on the transistor radio, a portable little gadget in the leather case with a pattern of tiny holes punched into it to let out the sound from the speakers. There he was, tall and Swedish and lanky, running metal conduit into the bedroom walls. It was a long aluminum snake designed to house electrical wire and it rippled and zipped and rattled as he shoved into into the wall cavity. It had to have been ten o'clock at night. Like a termite, whenever he was home it was likely he was in a white t-shirt, chewing something up.
My father laying brick
Over the years our water heater was in about three different locations in that house, although I don't recall the reasons why he was unhappy that it was in one place or another. Now I sometimes wonder if he just wasn't ever satisfied. Eventually he situated it in a laundry room by the back door. The room must have been an addition, since a large window in our bathroom opened into it. It was handy, in our crazy household, to shove our wet towels through that window after Saturday night baths. They would fall, sometimes long neglected, onto that attached laundry room floor. I don't remember the house ever being finished, as long as I lived there, and after my mother passed away his projects all but stopped in that place.
He drank, and it wasn't until years later that I understood the ramifications of that. I still, even in my sixties, struggle with trying to understand him. Drinking brought out the worst in him. I try very hard to find the best. It is what I really would like to remember after all.
In his constant pursuit for home improvement I recall what came to be know as "the block wall". It all began on winter's evening when a storm blew threw Venice, California and took down the wooden fence between our yard and the neighbor's. In a household with six children, where we were largely confined to the yard, a fallen fence was a problem.
My mother's family owned a building material business. Now nearly a hardware empire, it had been started in a shack in Santa Monica by my maternal grandfather who was a carpenter. They sold cinder blocks and probably still do. The fallen fence was going to be replaced with something much stronger.
One warm spring day my strapping young uncles arrived, with plenty of cinder block, and as much Olympia beer, and the construction of the block wall began. In my memory it took only a few days of hard labor, although it may have been several weekends. They erected a huge boundary, not only between us and that one neighbor, but between us and every neighbor on three sides. Salmon colored blocks, topped with what they called a "wagon wheel" design surrounded the property. I swear that inside every block there still resides a "dead soldier" - an empty bottle of Olympia beer. Sturdy wooden gates were installed and across the front of the Spanish style stucco home a sort of a baffle of open wagon wheel blocks created an entrance way. Many of my childhood memories still live within the confines of that cinder block wall.
My grandfather and uncles in the back row
Over time he laid a patio of sorts, flat caps of the same block spread out to cover one section of the yard. It was there that we played war behind tipped picnic tables, lobbing broken bricks at one another until I ended up with thirteen stitches in the back of my head. Although it was never declared, the war was won, or perhaps lost that day because I don't recall ever playing war again after that. I also remember rolling in empty corrugated cardboard barrels over those block caps and my next-youngest sister emerging with a huge potato bug clinging to her back. She froze, crying, "Get it off, get it off", without even moving her mouth. With a rake the bug was knocked down and disappeared between the block caps, which were never grouted. As long as I lived in that house I was sure that ugly bug was lurking there. It still gives me the willies.
Eventually that yard had a lemon tree and an apricot as well and a big avocado from next door that hung over the block wall. My father would slice the big green fruit, fresh from picking, around the middle, slap a sharp knife into the pit, pop it out and then bite into the thing. I learned that I don't care for biting into an avocado.
In fact, he ate just about anything. He loved pig's feet, and those fried pork rinds as well. We always had big jars of hot, pickled vegetables around, far too spicy for a child to appreciate and he poured mounds of chili powder and other hot spices onto his spaghetti. My mother insisted that his taste buds were dulled by cigars. His eating habits were a sight to behold. The cigars brought out other characteristics in him as well. In fifty's style he wore a uniform to work that had cuffed pants. Apparently cuffs make a very good ashtray for fallen cigar ashes. I remember my mother shaking them out in that walled yard as well.
My father was the king of his domain. When he wasn't tearing apart our house he was out late hours, sometimes until near dawn, and my mother would stay home dutifully and unhappily waiting for him to return. I always remember him as living and working hard. I do not know how he lives now, in old age, since I have not seen him in years.
He was also a hot tempered disciplinarian. I understand the need of discipline with six children, but that much responsibility takes it toll and his rule was fierce and violent. Those are some of the memories I grapple with the hardest.
But, from everything in life we must learn, and it is ours to sort out and try to put into perspective. One of the greatest lessons I learned since all those years ago is that I am not responsible for his choices, but only for my own. In fact I am not responsible for what anyone else does. My husband is his own man and he makes his own choices, as do my children, who are all grown now. You would think it is an obvious lesson, but it was not for me. For a very long time I believed that I was partly responsible for my father and many of the things that he did, but now I know that I did not walk in his shoes, and I never made his choices for him.
The night he proposed to his second wife I made arrangements to leave home, at seventeen, and began a journey of my own. Now and again I pull out old photographs from my childhood and try to make sense of life.
I'm still at it.