Yvonne Conza | Longreads | December 2018 | 28 minutes (6,875 words)
Dad is dying. A cell phone ping alerts me to a terse, fracturing email from my father’s younger brother.
Your Father is in a Florida Hospice. My eyes freeze on the bold subject line as I’m having dinner with a friend at an East Village restaurant. The muffled music and clatter of cutlery become an inescapable tunnel of sound. Childhood memories torpedo my thoughts and conflict with the reality that Dad is close to passing away on the cusp of turning 79. Thirty years of not knowing where or how he lived vanish.
To most everyone, John Joseph Downes was Jack, but to a few he was Jacqueline, and to Mom, my three older siblings and me, called “Jackass” behind his back. Dad’s multiplex of enduring identities also include: door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salesman; entrepreneur selling jigs, molds, gauges and fixture parts to automotive plants through a business he built from scratch; and the owner of a successful home health care agency. A Buffalo Bills fan, he gave his season tickets to clients while he watched games at home eating cheese curds and pretzels. He was a seeker of public office, wearer of white button-down shirts with wife-beater tanks underneath, actual wife beater, sporadic psoriasis sufferer, excellent provider, entertainer, showoff, lover of culture and a Chivas Regal drinker who, as these wailing memories emerge, will not live two months more to celebrate his New Year’s Eve birthday.
For a few years, Dad donned a hearse-black, trapezoid-contoured toupee that our Russian Blue cat murderously stalked like a sly predator. When askew on Dad’s head, the cat didn’t tamper with the hairpiece. But once it was placed atop Mom’s dresser she pounced on it, battled with double-sided tape and amused all, even Dad, with her mischief. Stored in a cherry wood armoire and draped over a creepy female Styrofoam white mannequin wig stand was Dad’s more notable wig, a dolled up shoulder-length Jackie O. bouffant postiche with satiny strands looped into starched beach waves. Had he added oval, dark, smoke-tinted oversized sunglasses, the look would have been complete.
He had a proclivity towards cross-dressing, a marital joint venture since Mom slipped him into finery that hung inside a shared closet. Though their bedroom door was kept closed, the curtains weren’t pulled down, perhaps intentionally, to spark a pivotal conversation. As a child of 8, I was blindsided by intimate details that felt jarring and amiss. Whenever I put away his freshly laundered socks and t-shirts, I had to open the shuttered double doors of his dresser and be exposed to the cavernous storage area where timepieces and ties kept Jackie O’s foam head company.
When I was not much older, flickering flashes, not belonging to a swarm of fireflies, distracted me from Charlie’s Angels. Looking up to the wide-open windows of my parent’s second floor bedroom I saw Dad accessorized, demure and toying with puckered painted lips. Backlit and indefinably beautiful, he seemed more himself in a size 16 dress than in one of his polyester baby blue or pickle green leisure suits.
Once while snooping for Christmas presents, I discovered Polaroid portraits of Dad as Jackie stashed in a shabby shoebox on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet. Clad in kitten heels, stockings and a conservative, zip-from-behind dress, he had been transformed into a chunky, rarified suggestion of Jacqueline Kennedy. When not embodying Jacqueline, he wore a suit, white shirt and tie, shaved, splashed on decadent amounts of Old Spice. It was hard for him to keep a clean shave, 5 o’clock shadow always intruding. He bore a resemblance to Don Knotts, the billboard-sized forehead over his eyebrows, which I inherited, displaying struggle, though in a more generous light it beamed with determination. After stuffing pens in his pocket protector, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work he’d go — a tender, paunch bellied dwarf with pick and shovel who knew not to return home until a million diamonds shined, and his worth to his wife could be proven.
After receiving the email informing me that Dad’s dying, the memory of his crooning baritone voice — which served him best during community theater productions and on Sundays when he belted out Broadway tunes before mass — wondrously muscles itself inside my head and I want to smile, smile so big my face will hurt. Instead I clench my teeth, offering my friend an apologetic shrug for turning away mid-conversation to read the rest of the email on my phone at a tortoise’s pace.
I send the below message I received, merely to keep you advised. I have absolutely no expectations as to what [if anything] you might use the information for—-but I didn’t feel that I should keep it from you.
I’ve spoken with him twice over the last few days. He is not often lucid. He has a number of health issues—-not the least of which is a chronic and recurring dementia.
The note from my uncle, a retired lawyer, didn’t require a response. I’d cut Dad out of my life almost three decades before, a period of time that spans five U.S. presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His volcanic eruptions of violence against Mom destroyed our family and led me to denounce him. Our parents fought like cartoon villains. Mom, the agitator, gave as good as she got. Some mornings I worried if she’d be alive, or have a raised red bruise concealed beneath her peter pan collared blouse.
At 5, I climbed out of bed to get a glass of water. Edging into the living room from a narrow slip of a hallway, I had a clear view of Dad straddled over Mom’s body. His necktie was wrapped around her throat. The couch’s legs scraped the floor as their bodies wrestled one another. Their fight had started hours earlier when Mom goaded Dad at the dinner table about something trivial. He ignored her needling and passed the pan-fried pork chops and scooped peas handed to him onto his plate. Mom ratcheted it up until, reaching a breaking point, his spit-spattered words of “bitch” and “cunt” were nuclear bombs that signaled, “Kids run to your rooms.” Their brawling slugged me into a fogged sleep filled with nightmares. Deep into a night that had gone eerily quiet, I awoke parched and entered the skinny passageway. Dad was up to a new kind of violence: strangling. Worried my intrusion could offset their tussling and cost Mom her life, I retreated to my bedroom with soft backward-pedaling steps, convinced that I could vanish into the floorboards and Mom would be alive in the morning.
Dad dying inches me toward the precipice of becoming a 50-year-old orphan. Mom died in 2010, almost 25 years after their contentious divorce. In this cloudy thought surfacing in present time, emotions chafe one another and land in feral territory: Dad’s not a monster. He did lousy things but thoughtful ones as well. His health had never been stellar. Chest pains constantly drove him to obsess about having a heart attack and, at 40, he was stricken with Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare and serious autoimmune disorder that attacks the peripheral nervous system and causes rapid-onset muscle weakness. Symptoms include paralysis of the legs, arms, breathing muscles and face. In 1976, reduced to communicative eye blinks of one-no and two-yes, and within hours of being intubated, he was read his last rites. He survived, but it took him a full year to recover and the soles of his feet were left without sensation. A bout with irritable bowel syndrome came years later.
Dad had a proclivity towards cross-dressing, a marital joint venture since Mom slipped him into finery that hung inside a shared closet.
Before GBS, Dad was a heavy smoker, though not loyal to a brand like Mom. He toggled between Parliament and Pall Mall — or was it Newport? His drink of choice on celebratory occasions was Asti Spumante. Mom told him the noxiously sweet wine paired best with dessert. “Jack it’s not really an all-around cocktail,” she said. Dad disagreed and, for his first home-based business Christmas party, chilled several bottles. I was 10 years old, watching guests pour the foamy liquid into potted plants when Dad wasn’t looking. I tried a glass that others probably thought was 7-Up, then another, and soon the room was spinning. It gave me the wickedest headache.
Speaking of my Dad in public, I usually begin with, “He survived Guillain–Barré syndrome.” Chatting about his health issues lets me avoid a conversation about his flawed parenting, his unclear sexuality, and his fierce fists. I parcel out details about his paralysis and recovery to appear as someone who grew up with a traditional father. At parties, it’s less awkward than mentioning who he was other than a person afflicted with ailments — especially the part about his cross-dressing, which I never fully understood.
There had been an earlier opportunity to reconcile. When I was 45, an unknown number flashed on my cell phone. I let it go to voicemail. The Facebook photo I’d posted of Princess, my beloved childhood dog, must have triggered Dad’s memory and his message: “Beautiful markings. We should talk.” The tone of his voice was perfect for a coffee klatch, but as he continued, his inflection wobbled and he broke down. Words caught in his throat.
I played his message several more times. “We should talk.” His nervous gravel-baritone voice spiked upward between each spoken word as though he believed even voicemail was capable of hanging up on him.
Dad had no idea how difficult it was for me to be his daughter. Everything I felt, love and loss, was buried inside of me. I saw him last in 1985, when he gave me a tuition check for a semester at New York University. A lover of theater himself, he had to have been proud of my acceptance to the top drama school in the country. But he was perhaps surprised, too, that I’d snuck off to audition for the program. I hadn’t been defiant in not telling him, but fearful I wouldn’t make the cut. My boyfriend, who was tasked with taking me to Manhattan, waited in the car outside Dad’s office for me to run in and grab the check. “Keep it running,” I said. Dad pointed to the chair across from his desk. “Sit.” I received a lecture on becoming an adult, followed by, “You’re on your own. Got it? No more money.”
In high school I landed a lead role in a community theatre production and Dad asked to see my script. He began to count my lines, then after realizing I had a lot of dialogue and stage time tepidly said, “Good luck,” as he walked away without looking at me. I was left feeling that I’d taken something from him. Later that day he offered advice. “Don’t ever just deliver your lines but listen to your fellow actors and react — make it real. And get off book as soon as possible. Got it?” I replied, “Got it.” After opening night Dad critiqued me with notes on how I could do a better job. Other stage roles and accomplishments were each followed by a critical analysis from him meant to challenge me. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent but there’s little talk about one who is competitive with you. Unspoken was the apparent rivalry he felt with me about acting. Dad was torn between his insecurities, his ambitions, and his daughter. Mom blamed me for his returning to theatre. Performing was his first real love. I understood how alive he felt on stage because I felt that way too.
When I stood up and reached for the check, he miscalculated. Thinking that I wanted a hug, he opened his arms to pull me into his barrel chest. Instead, my fists began to pummel his face. Despite his secretaries’ screams that they were calling the police, I couldn’t and wouldn’t stop myself. Had he felt that way when he hit Mom? I backed him into a corner and looked him in the eye. He knew I was telling him that he’d never see me again.
“We should talk.” If I’d called him back, we could have shared pleasant memories about Princess. How she wasn’t a shedder — her soft wavy coat required no brushing. How, when she was abandoned at a roadside food stand, plenty of people had lobbed food in her direction to coax her to come home with them, but she picked Dad. He shared her with us and taught her to love us as much as she loved him.
I told my husband that I listened to Dad’s message only once — a child’s lie since I played it again before clicking the trash icon and instantaneously regretting it. By this time in my life I was well accustomed to living with the wound of fatherlessness, and the martyrdom of denying myself something I wanted. In 2011, a push notification of Dad’s Facebook friend request popped on my phone. My finger hovered over confirm or delete as I took in his profile picture. It made me smile. He was wearing a white porkpie hat and a cross between a Havana and a Hawaiian shirt, still searching for a fashion lane. I still have his friendship request, although I never acted on it. Would he keep coming back every time I childishly rebuffed him? How much did he really love me? Was it unconditional? Prove it. My feelings anchor to the lyrics of X Ambassadors’ “Unsteady”: If you love me, don’t let go.
Long before I tested his love, my father tested ours. In 1978, when I was 14 years old, Dad lit his undershirt on fire and threatened to jump off the one-story roof covering our outdoor patio. By then I knew how to play the French horn, begged to drop out of geometry class, and had quit being part of the family Greek chorus that on cue shouted: “NO, DON’T DO IT.” And, “DAD — PLEASE WE’RE BEGGING YOU DON’T.” Habituated to his actions that were targeted mostly to scare us, I said, “JUMP”, and walked away. The following week Dad decided to run for town supervisor. For a campaign publicity shot he hired a photographer who gathered us three feet away from the ledge of Dad’s near leap. “It’s a pastoral view,” exclaimed the ghost of a chance politician. My eldest brother — 19, no longer living at home, taller than a redwood tree — was seated in order to prevent his head from being out of the frame. My middle brother, older sister, and I, the youngest at 12, stood behind the seated candidate and Mom. Too-tall brother, who would commit suicide two years later, towered over our parents even while rooted in a chair. After snapping each photo, the shutterbug stopped to adjust lights, dust powder on Dad’s sweating face, and ask if any of us needed a break. With tongue-tied statue expressions and, united in our desire for the farce of a convincing family visual to be over, we caroled, “Keep going.”
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As Jack and Jacqueline, Dad was attempting to live his life his way, but this was risky within our small-town surroundings of tended fields filled with dairy cows, and farmers in dungarees and overalls. I feared rejecting him but was also afraid to love him. I was worried the town folk would harass and hurt him if they knew about his secret life. Our neighbors would tell me he was “you betcha off-kilter.” I didn’t think they knew about his wearing dresses, but I knew their remarks weren’t just in response to his running for town supervisor because the incumbent had slighted him. They laughed and rubbed my shoulders in a chummy way adding, “Don’t worry, you’re okay.” They’d then look into my eyes to nudge me to sell out Dad with a tiny giggle acknowledging that I was in on the town joke.
While my relationship with my father was difficult, there were good aspects to it, and positive influences, too. As a little girl I was trained to answer the office phone, “May-Can Supply, we can-do it. How may I help you?” Dad’s protocol for answering the business line remains ingrained in me. I credit his mantra for having me repeat “can-do” thousands of times at a young age for having a positive influence on my life. The impact it had on him surpassed obtaining a college degree as a key ingredient of his success and, while I may have been a fearful child, I garnered a wealth of “can-do” tenacity to help me reach my dreams.
Chatting about his health issues lets me avoid a conversation about his flawed parenting, his unclear sexuality, and his fierce fists.
He also modeled compassion. Dad was a crier. (Despite his penchant for violence, “macho” was never a way to describe him.) He didn’t cry over everything, but he cried when he needed to and it broke my heart every time because it was real. He felt pain. One time, my brother brought home an injured kitten he found on the side of the road. The cat was barely moving and had maggots crawling inside a head wound. Dad got a bucket and filled it with bleach and water. He wrapped the kitten in a blanket and headed toward the garage. As we followed him he yelled, “Get out of here,” a roared heartbreaking plea, not an angry command. Knowing it was a difficult thing he was about to do made his eyes tear. He understood grief’s tender and layered emotions, even if he wasn’t certain of other things in his life.
Dad provided a comfortable home for us. A Quonset hut, a tin-can starter home, corralled our family until he could afford to have a modest ranch built with a jetted bathtub. With his increased earnings, he built a two-story brick addition with two living rooms with fireplaces in each, three additional bedrooms, two full bathrooms, one powder room, and offices on the ground floor next to the heated garage. When entertaining visitors, he gave a cringe-worthy grand tour of the house, pointing out the details of our wall paneling, moldings and wall-to-wall carpet — not emphasizing their cost, but demonstrating the distance from poverty he had achieved and how he could afford luxuries.
Money was Dad’s means of gaining prestige, and a new identity linked to respect. He was the eldest of three boys raised by a single mother after their father left for a string of other women. He knew about struggle. His mother, an actual “Rosie the Riveter” at Curtiss-Wright, helped make P-40 fighter planes used by General Chennault’s Flying Tigers that took down Japanese bombers and fighter aircraft in China during World War II. She taught her eldest son to be resourceful and to work hard. Her dresses were perhaps the first ones my Dad wore.
It gave him pleasure to have nice things, things Mom grew to expect but not take care of, and that would anger him. My sister and I dusted and cleaned, but it was never enough.
The email about Dad dying arrived before my meal was served at Porsena on East 7th Street, not far from the KGB Bar. Friends know the place; maybe they even dined there before attending one of KGB’s many literary events. To deflect the stigma of estrangement, I craft in my head a plainspoken response for when asked how I found out about Dad’s pending death. “My uncle sent me an email.” Left out are shattering words:
I send the below message I received, merely to keep you advised. I have absolutely no expectations as to what [if anything] you might use the information for—-but I didn’t feel that I should keep it from you.
Estrangement, a silent shame, is sometimes necessary to live a healthy life. Holidays cause me terrible pain. I drift off, not pretending that I’m on an island but convinced that I am an island. When I married the Blimpie founder, a successful businessman who sang in his own commercials, it came with a new identity that made me less someone’s daughter and more the wife of a sandwich man. I’ve capitalized on being best known for not being known. It’s my way of participating in the world while shielding my vulnerability and my confusion.
How or where I grew up is not often a topic of conversation. If it does come up, from Buffalo diverts talk away from social intimacy and toward exchanges about the area’s weather, sports or food. Tell a good blizzard story and people quickly launch into a conversation about the snowfall they once endured there. Whiteout blizzards, black ice and sky-high, lake effect snow banks seem unimaginable. At times I trot out odd fun facts, such as: it’s illegal to throw a snowball intentionally at someone’s head in Buffalo; for over 75 years General Mills has produced cereal down by the Buffalo River where the toasted oat aroma of Cheerios clings in the air; the air conditioner was invented there; and most people are unaware that the area has the sunniest, driest, drought impacted summers.
In his hospital bed, he is Dad, Jack, and other parts of his hyperconscious, multi-hyphenated identity — John Joseph, Jacqueline and Jackass — assembled together in a state of distortion and hyper-arousal. He is also Orlando, a character he played in 1982, in a whodunit play — a former mailman and mental patient with the soul of a poet and parlance of a philosopher. Orlando rooms with a jewelry thief who, though claiming he was framed, has just completed a seven-year prison sentence. Critics wrote about the playwright’s inventive quirks for Orlando. Dad’s character recites the Monroe Doctrine backwards. They also noted: “Orlando turns out to be more than he seems and Orlando’s ramblings too, too relevant.”
Newspaper: Buffalo Courier-Express – Theater Review (1982) … — wholly weird roommate Orlando (Jack), who is given to flights of philosophical gibberish and depressions of self-flagellating remorse, and who shares deeply in Johnny’s (the main character) criminal past. Jack makes Orlando a big flouncing, marvelously eccentric character, almost Gothic Southern Neurotic, like the uncle in Truman Capote’s “Other Room/Other Voices.”
As my father is dying, his mind pulls apart. He is reciting the Monroe Doctrine backwards. Lines from my uncle’s email emerge in my thoughts. He is not often lucid. He has a number of health issues—-not the least of which is a chronic and recurring dementia. Dad’s life, its chronology and memory implode and are now becoming novel in their newness, alive and forming, concrete and fluid. For the first time in his life all his identities converge without judgment. Dad can be himself, there’s no more discomfort or negotiating from everyday life.
I stumble to grasp the reality of the situation, desiring above all that he be remembered as a good father. My recollections shift. I struggle harder to understand him, but that’s never been easy. As a child, I didn’t know how to make sense of his cross-dressing. When I watch Diane Sawyer’s 2015 interview with Caitlyn Jenner, I imagine what it might have been like if 40 years ago, she’d sat me down on a comfy couch and ask, “When you look at your Father do you see Jack, Jacqueline or Dad?” During her interview with Jenner, I am startled by Sawyer’s voiceover statement that embraces a brave, crystalline strength: “Knowing the moment that carries you forward can also mean no way back.”
Sawyer: “Bruce Jenner is?”
“Bruce Jenner is — I would say I’ve always been very confused with my gender identity since I was this big. I look at it this way, Bruce always telling a lie. He’s lived a lie his whole life about who he is. And I — can’t do that any longer.”
Sawyer: “Are you a woman?”
I’d tuned into the interview seeking insight about Dad, and learned along with the rest of the country that Jenner identifies as transgender. As far as I knew, that’s not what Dad was. He was a cross-dresser. Although it can be different from case to case, a GLAAD online post states that cross-dressers “do not wish to permanently change their sex or live full-time as women.” In 1998, a friend wanted to introduce me to the comedian Eddie Izzard, saying I was his type. Before I could respond he added, “He’s straight but likes to wear women’s clothes.” I declined the hookup, but thought about how that described my Dad. Famous people thought to be cross-dressers include J. Edgar Hoover, Oscar De La Hoya and Marv Albert. As a little girl, I found Dad’s authentic self to be a mystery. It embarrassed, confused and saddened me. Our father-daughter relationship was built on silence and secrets.
As Jackie, Dad seemed more at peace with himself. At the end of a long work week, he’d slip into a dress and borrow Mom’s pearl necklace. Sometimes he skipped the cross-dressing and, for periods of time, would be all suit and tie. When he traveled for business, I never looked to see what clothes he packed. The knowledge I already had was enough for me. I didn’t want to know more.
Dad’s dappled identity made me feel that I had lost a parent and a father. When he was Jackie, it was unclear if he was Dad. When he was Dad, was he still Jackie? The one glimmer into Dad’s feelings about himself came towards the end of the Caitlyn Jenner interview. Sawyer asks, “If you were me, what question would you ask you?”
Jenner: Are you going to be okay?
Sawyer: Are you going to be okay?
Dad had to have known his cross-dressing could put his safety in the crosshairs of danger in our small farming town. There was a cloaked atmosphere there, wherein the locals didn’t care for much for anything outside the norm. According to City-data.com in 2016, per a variety of collected data from government and private sources, there were allegedly no gay or lesbian households in our hamlet.
Estrangement, a silent shame, is sometimes necessary to live a healthy life. Holidays cause me terrible pain.
In the 70s, when I was 11, I was with Dad when he checked on his gay friend who had been beaten up. “Wait in the car,” he said, but he couldn’t stop me. Gordon was our friend. Repeated knocks on the back door were met with no response. From the first knock, Pierre, his miniature pebble-grey poodle, could be heard barking. Earlier that day, Dad’s face had gone ashen after he answered the phone. “Gordon is being released from the hospital and taking a car service home,” he said to Mom. “Who did it?” she asked. Disregarding Mom’s question, Dad grabbed his car keys.
Gordon lived in a single dwelling with a small yard and tomato and cucumber garden in the back. Tall swivel bar stools surrounded a granite kitchen counter top designed as a social perch. The guest bathroom had a lace crochet doily underneath the Kleenex box and the living room smelled of Lemon Pledge. The rest of his household felt off limits, as if he didn’t want whatever wigs and dresses he might have to be discovered. Even Pierre sensed the boundaries and stayed by my side.
Whenever we dropped by Gordon’s he would ask, “What would the lady like to drink?” Before I could answer he’d shoot back, “Shirley Temple coming up.” Pouring it into a cocktail glass, he’d add a tiny red sipping straw and drop a maraschino cherry on top. In keeping with his spotless attention to detail, he placed our drinks on cork coasters. After being served, he’d head over to the turntable to play his recordings of Frank Sinatra, Peter Paul and Mary, the Broadway cast of Camelot featuring Richard Burton, Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews, and the comedy of Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby and Don Rickles — all the while schooling Dad and me on the arts, music, dancing and restaurants.
The day we checked in on Gordon, Pierre was yapping and going crazy inside. We wouldn’t leave until we saw him. Dad jingled the door handle. “I’ve got Yvonne with me. Open up.” A long moment passed before rustling in the kitchen could be heard.
“Not going until you open this door.”
“Come back later.”
“Pierre needs a walk.”
“I’m not dressed.”
Dad’s eyes darted in my direction to see if I was okay, or scared. I gave him a grin, not wide enough to pass for a smile but enough for him to understand I wanted him to put his hand on my shoulder and steady me. “We’ll wait.”
“Give me a moment,” Gordon said. We heard the crackle and clamor of ice cubes being wrestled from their tray, then plunked into a plastic bucket, which made us both sigh with relief. A few more minutes passed before the turning of the lock chamber and the squealing inward of the door. Then Gordon was in front of us, wearing makeup that couldn’t conceal scarlet and navy bruises and a swollen right eye. The man who wore florid ascots even on weekends and maintained manicured nails and cuticles was sloppy drunk. “You-sha-go” he slurred as he ushered us in. Pierre began jumping on me.
The sight of a pummeled person, the unsparing visible manifestation of intolerance, frightened me. I’d witnessed brutality between my parents but this was a level far deeper. The bruising on Gordon’s face came from fists and steel-toe boots. I wondered what might have happened if my father had been with him. If Gordon and Jackie had been together grabbing a bite to eat then venturing to a downtown jazz club, would the beating have turned to murder? Would it have been worse for Dad, because he wore a dress? Would they have wanted to teach the “little lady” a lesson she’d never forget?
As an executive secretary at Bethlehem Steel, Gordon had listened to Dad’s cold call pitch for tool and die parts — “This is Jack Downes from May-Can Supply — as in MAY-CAN do it. I’d like a moment of your time.”
“Jack — we’ll keep you in mind. Have a nice day.”
Good salesmen turn kind words into malleable ones. Dad interpreted something in Gordon’s voice to mean “Come right over.” The meeting led to many purchase orders and a friendship of kindred spirits who craved companionship without judgment. Gordon took Dad under his wing and formed a platonic mentorship with him. He taught the floundering, boastful young salesman to not oversell, trained him to hold back when appropriate, coached him on how to use his charm, and passed along his name to others that might need his services. Gordon was older and wiser, and also not confused about his sexuality. He was openly gay, unlike Dad, who was not homosexual, but seemed confused, or in denial about his orientation.
Mom didn’t like their relationship. During a heated argument she once used the word “queer.” Lesser remarks often sent Dad into a rage, but this he flicked off by shooting her a look that implicated her as shameless. Under Gordon’s guidance, Dad conducted himself with greater composure, thereby reducing the physical altercations between my parents. If things heated up, Dad picked up his wallet and car keys and pulled out of the driveway, returning hours later when everyone was sleeping.
Dad snatched the prescription vial from Gordon’s kitchen counter. “How many did you take?” Not bothering with words, Gordon wagged two fingers in front of Dad’s face. His bathrobe needed to be tied tighter. “Let’s get you dressed,” Dad said as he led Gordon back to his bedroom.
Dad had once taken me to Broadway to see Dustin Hoffman in Death of a Salesman. We sat five rows from center stage, our elbows brushing whenever one of us squirmed in our seat. At the start of the play I recognized the lead character’s similarities to Dad — their desperate desire to be well liked. Though Dad achieved material success, many areas of his life were bedeviled with insecurities and a sense of isolation.
Mr. Hoffman’s Willy takes flight late in Act I, when he first alludes to his relationship with his own father. Recalling how his father left when he was still a child, Willy says, ”I never had a chance to talk to him, and I still feel – kind of temporary about myself.” As Mr. Hoffman’s voice breaks on the word ”temporary,” his spirit cracks into aged defeat. From then on, it’s a merciless drop to the bottom of his ”strange thoughts” – the hallucinatory memory sequences that send him careening in and out of a lifetime of anxiety. ~ Frank Rich, The New York Times, March 30th, 1984
I’d witnessed as Dad lived many years as a version of Willy Loman. He had a strong work ethic. Years of hard work as a salesman landed Cadillacs in our once crushed gravel driveway which had now been paved. With showboat antics, he purchased some of those cars in awry colors like Pink Panther pink and pimento red. “Nice color,” men in pickup trucks would say, ridiculing him. It wouldn’t register with him that way, though. He’d imagine instead that their long stares and comments reflected admiration. “Thanks,” he’d say. “It’s one of a kind.” “Sure is, Jack,” they’d snicker before speeding away. If he understood their mocking, Dad’s expression never gave it away.
As complicated as my relationship with my father was, I never had to doubt he loved me. When I was a little girl Dad would say to me, “Love you more.” He always made a big deal about my January birthday, including my 7th, when the view from our front window was a whirl of snow. We had delayed lighting the candles because he wasn’t home, the weather kept getting worse and I was finally convinced that he wouldn’t make it. Long after I went to bed, he arrived, having missed yellow cake with chocolate frosting. A blizzard couldn’t stop him from bringing my gift. In the morning, I woke up to find a child’s Hollywood-white makeup dresser with a mirror and a single thin drawer that opened by pulling a sparkling glass knob. No other girl in my small town had ever been given so special a gift. Dad was different from other fathers, something I understood before turning 5. He aspired to be more than the life he’d been dealt.
A few years later, Dad shared his love of makeup with me in a more direct way. An hour before my 6th grade graduation, he took me into the bathroom he shared with my mom, then slid my glasses off and placed them next to the sink. “Close your eyes,” he said. “I’m going to put on a base coat to even out your skin.” He put his chubby fingers to work, applying foundation to my face. “Let’s add eye shadow and liner,” he said. I peeked so that I could watch him expertly dip a makeup brush into a palette of vivid colors. Then, as I stared straight into his face, he applied the final touches of mascara and lipstick. He seemed proud of my looks and appreciative of a momentary connection with his youngest child. My patience and attention demonstrated interest and affection — and non-judgment. He could tell that even though I knew his secrets, I accepted him.
“Take a look,” he said when he was done. Gone were my freckles and my innocent babyface. Staring back at me was a seductive woman. I was speechless. My face had become a canvas for the version of himself that he wished he could reveal, but wasn’t allowed to. Nobody had ever called him pretty, something he longed for. He didn’t deserve to be ostracized for his choices. But for many years, in my own way, I did. Casting him as selfish, or a fool, was my way of coping. On those late nights when Mom started the car and Jackie in heels jumped into the passenger seat then ducked under the dashboard to avoid being seen by townsfolk, I’d say to my siblings, “Lipstick on a pig,” and gut laugh until I cried. People in our community, and elsewhere, found his lifestyle unacceptable. Thankfully, though, a place I never sought out existed where he did feel alive. But there were hours in a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime, when he felt alone and dead. Somehow he still managed to put a roof over our heads, food on the table, and a heated swimming pool in the backyard. He also taught us to dream, and he made us feel loved.
Without Dad noticing, I grabbed a tissue to tone down the blaring blush. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I half smiled and mumbled, “We have to go. I can’t be late.” Mom was going to kill him. Everyone at commencement was in for a surprise — the Hauser boy, my commencement partner who matched my height, as well as the parents and teachers.
Mom glimpsed me as I slid into the back seat of the car. She was a mare preparing to buck and kick her heels in anger but held herself in check to prevent me from bawling and having the black eyeliner smear into an even stranger mess. There wasn’t time to wash my face and start over again. While driving to my graduation, laughing made that flash of time livable. The corkscrew curls in my waist-length hair done by a beautician hours earlier had wilted into floppy waves while an onyx barrette pulled back my long bangs and exposed my billboard forehead. As I walked into the cafeteria that had been transformed into our auditorium, eyes zeroed in on me. I knew what they were thinking: Dad was the town joke, and now his daughter was a clown. Instead of shying away, I decided to own the look, and beamed the biggest, sassiest smile right back at the gaping gazes.
I saw my Dad only one other time in my adult life. In 2010, when Mom died, he arrived to the funeral home before anyone, anticipating that his presence would be unsettling. Dad signed the guest book and paid his respects with a tasteful bouquet of flowers. For a time it was rumored he lived with his new Native American wife on the Cattaraugus Reservation in Erie County, though some believed his residence was in Las Vegas. Likely the former was true as he couldn’t have known about Mom’s death unless he was in the area. Keeping track of Dad’s whereabouts wasn’t something I was interested in.
Dad had to have known his cross-dressing could put his safety in the crosshairs of danger in our small farming town.
Dad walked in front of our car as Tony, my husband, and I were approaching the church. I hadn’t seen him in 25 years. “That’s my Dad,” I said, detached, matter-of-factly, as my heart raced. He wasn’t aware of my presence, but it surprised me how much tender pride I felt in seeing him. I made a wisecrack to Tony who had never met him but knew all about him. We sat in the front pew and he situated himself in the back. After the service, I trailed behind Mom’s coffin as it was being carried out. Standing as I passed him, he pulled me into his barrel chest. Blanketed by his arms my body froze in place. Nothing came out of my mouth but I didn’t push him away. I don’t know what I felt, but I think it was Dad’s unconditional love for me.
Over the years, not phoning or answering Dad’s calls weaponized my emotions. Hurt has been more real to me than my failure to allow myself to receive love. It was for protection I told myself, conveniently omitting that it also served to punish him. My actions wounded both of us. Dad was a remarkable and complex man. My uncle’s brittle email held both truth and falsehood that made it incapable of capturing the totality of my love for my father. Inside the restaurant is the hovering and uncomplicated aroma of garlic and pesto. In the Milky Way galaxy of my mind, Dad is singing a song from Camelot, “If ever I would leave you. It wouldn’t be in summer.”
Flowers. On Monday I cleaned the house from top to bottom. Late afternoon on Tuesday, I ordered Dad a purple, pink and baby’s breath floral arrangement, paying an extra fee to guarantee same-day delivery.
“Would you like to include a note?”
Know that you are loved was pinned to clear cellophane wrapping. Forgiven and not forgotten.
The florist delivered my flowers and gave Dad my new phone number.
Voicemail. (15 seconds) “This is Jack … thiiisss iiisss your Dad … god I missed you so much … Iii’mmmm sssooo sorry for anything I may have done —–”
Your Father—My brother
Your father passed away this AM. I received the message that he passed away at 7:12 eastern time.
Dad survived just 5 days after I learned of his decline. An email from my uncle, after the first one and before the last one, stated Dad had been hospitalized for “some seven weeks” prior to hospice.
”He can go in and out of clarity quite quickly. He suffers from lack of mobility, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver as well as the cognition issue. But, if you catch him at the right time, he has good recall and can communicate effectively.”
I was alone when I found out he died. When I first listened to his voicemail I stopped the message after I heard …“thiiisss iiisss your Dad.” His brokenness gutted me. Dad was uttered in a voice used by an adult speaking to a confused child. I felt his absence, lingered in grief, then played the entirety of his thoughts.
“…god, I missed you so much …” The feeling was mutual. I saved his voicemail.
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Yvonne Conza’s writing has appeared in Catapult, The Rumpus, Joyland Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Millions, Electric Lit and other publications. She is a Pushcart Nominee and a finalist for: Penelope Niven Prize in Creative Nonfiction, Cutbank Literary Journal, Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff, Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction, Blue Mesa Review and The Raymond Carver Short Story.
Editor: Sari Botton