Saturday, August 05, 2006


When I was about fourteen or so, my father suffered a series of strokes that left his mind clouded and confused. Since I had always adored my father, this was a terrible blow to me, and my life changed from that moment on. First, it changed because Pop did not recognize me as his daughter, but kept calling me by my mother's name. And, as time went by, it was as though I became the parent and he became the child.

I never knew him as a young man. I have never even seen a picture of him as a young man. To me, he was born old, with sun-baked leathery skin and that old brown felt hat. In my imagination, I can see him as a baby, laying in a cradle, wearing that sweat-stained brown hat.

He wasn't a big man, but he was strong. Even when he was in his seventies, he was strong. He could carry entire trees on his back, bringing them up from the orchard to use as firewood. He could chop wood with precision.

When he finally came in from the fields or the barn, he would enjoy the supper my mother cooked for us, then settle himself in that tattered, broken-down green chair to read the Detroit Times and relax for the evening. In the wintertime, he had to get up out of the chair frequently to load more wood on the fire, or stoke it with the sooty poker kept for that purpose. The room was alternatively too hot, or too cold. Medium heat was not available in that farmhouse.

I always sat in the big leather rocker, my legs curled under me, reading a book. This was before television became an American pastime. There were no sitcoms or dramas to hold me enthralled. All we had was books and I used to walk the two miles to the library once a week to replenish my supply.

When Mom was gone to visit at Helma's house, which she did regularly after Helma married, even going to Helma's doctor for her various ailments, I was left alone with Pop. After his strokes, this was disconcerting, because the truth is, he thought I was Mom. I guess he thought I was a younger Mom, because he babied me, treating me better than he ever seemed to treat Mom. Perhaps this is how he looked upon her when he married her, a twenty-eight year old man with a young bride of thirteen.

We would sit in our respective chairs and he would talk to me, telling the story of his life. Now, many years later, I could kick myself for not paying more attention, but I was a young girl and the life of my old father was not of great interest to me. But I remember some of it and will try to recall what he said.

When he reached the age of twenty-one, he had tired of family life, and he and a friend named Greenberry Sears set off for a life of adventure. They had little money, so they hitched rides on trains, traveling here and there, only resorting to horseback when the tracks ran out.

They traveled through the South on a railway called The Snake, getting off now and then to live in hobo nests and work in various occupations along the way. The worst job, he said, was the cotton fields. Horrible, backbreaking work...picking all day in the hot Alabama sun! There was always a dour, humorless overseer, urging them on. They lasted a month, then took their pay and set off for new adventures, writing "Goodbye" on the cotton sacks with chalk.

They bought a mountain in Missouri, but never lived there and never paid taxes on it. They worked on the farms and fished in the rivers. They lived a life of rustic ease, enjoying the scenery of each place they visited.

Somehow, they ended up in Oklahoma, where they lived in a tent with an Indian woman. Whether this relationship was sexual, or simply a matter of convenience, I do not know, but they stayed in Oklahoma for several months.

After years of this travel, they tired of the life and decided to return to Illinois. Once there, Pop found that his sister had married the old Funderburk man, Alexander. The only hitch in their happiness was the fact that Alexander had a young daughter, aged 11 at the time of the marriage. As the months passed, the problems between this daughter and my father's sister multiplied. The sixteen-year old sister had no plans on being a mother to this young girl.

To add to this confusion, another of my father's sisters married Alexander's son, Asa. Thus, the family became as entangled as a ball of yarn in the paws of a kitten.

This is when my father stepped in. He claims it was a "rescue." Whatever the reasons, he married this young girl and, according to him, she lied her age. Instead of admitting to being 13, she said she was 14.

"Why?" I asked him. "If you are going to lie, why not make it a good lie? Why not say she was seventeen?"

"Because she looked like a child," he explained.

Three years later, she gave birth to her first child, a boy. Then the other eleven babies came in two year intervals, except for a four year gap between two of them, when she suffered a miscarriage. My mother spent ten years of her life pregnant and a lifetime working hard to feed and clothe this enormous brood.

Pop, whose given name was John, was called Blackjack by his family, because of his black hair and brown eyes. He was good with horses and worked as a horsetrader. He could tell a good horse by looking at him and gave me some instructions along those lines. Always, he told me, always sniff a horse's breath before buying him. If he smells like kerosene, beware! People gave horses doses of kerosene to make them bloat up and look healthy. Then, after the purchase, they deflate, like balloons.

I have never forgotten that advice, and I have never bought a horse, but if I ever do, you can bet I will check its breath.

Pop would talk about his family, about his grandparents who had been shot by drunken Union soldiers looking for a renegade son, who was a member of the Copperheads, a pro-slavery group that disliked Abe Lincoln.

It sets you back on your heels to find out your ancestors hated Abe Lincoln! It's worse than hating apple pie and ice cream. It's downright unAmerican! What a blot on the Family Tree!

Anyway, the Union soldiers had not only shot the grandparents, but the bullet had passed through him and also killed the grandmother, who was standing directly behind her man as he opened the door to the intruders.

Pop talked about this, about an unruly fellow named Roscoe Sears, whom I have never figured out was a relative or not. He talked about a fellow named Tom who disappeared. He talked about red-haired twins that noone has ever located on the Family Tree. He talked about sisters who suffered mental problems and died.

"That's why he gets into his Black Moods," said my mother, when I questioned her about it. "He had to put them all away!"

Now what did that mean? Did he put them in their graves? Were they in mental homes? I never asked.

Oh, the stupidity of the Young, who believe the world begins and ends with themselves. Why didn't I question him more? Why didn't I listen? Why didn't I talk to those ridiculously rhyming Aunts...Stelly, Nelly, Delly....was there a Zelly? I don't remember.

I used to pretend there was, when I worked at the newspaper. I told a photographer about Stelly, Nelly, Delly, and Zelly, and she said, "I can beat that. I had an Aunt Rose, an Aunt Violet, an Aunt Lily, an Aunt Daisy, and an Aunt Zinnia."

Why do I care? I don't know the answer to that. As I get older, I wonder about the people who have given me their DNA to make me what I am today and that I have passed on to my own children. It's like looking at the moon and wondering what is there. But perhaps, as with the moon, some of the mystery and romance of space disappears when the answers are found. What you imagine is made of moonbeams and stardust turns out to be just a pile of rock.