My father’s father was made of different stuff. I never knew him as Grandpa because he died the year I was born. There is only one picture of us together, and in it, he sits stiff and unsmiling, his wire-rim glasses glinting at the camera. He has my father’s long solemn face and the same blue eyes. He looks utterly, hopelessly lost. And there I am, in the middle of the picture, bundled up and about to roll right off the arms he has stretched beneath me like a forklift. His name was Ellis, and by then, he had only months to live.
Ellis was a man known for his disappearances. His first had been at 14. Somewhere out east he had run from a father who beat him with a belt. I have always pictured those beatings in a basement, under a single naked bulb. I imagine a grown man in a sweaty undershirt cornering my lanky grandfather. So one night, Ellis slipped out and left. He took none of his siblings with him, and I know this haunted him. I know it haunted him because he told my father, who was haunted in turn.
Ellis spent the Depression riding the rails. Eventually, he wound up in California at a dance hall, where he met my father’s mother. Thelma.
She already had two children by then. Born into Mormon country during the Depression, she had married young. But her husband died shortly after, and she had run off, leaving Utah for good and taking her children with her. She was blonde and flirtatious and a runaway, too. Grown women, back then, could be runaways. If you wanted a life of your own, if you wanted to live like the sexually active woman you were, if you wanted to kiss men and dance with them and maybe do more, you had to run. So she did.
I like to think Thelma and Ellis recognized something in each other, two broken people wanting only escape.
Instead, what they got was a baby. Thelma was pregnant before they knew it, and their shotgun wedding was followed swiftly by my father’s birth in 1952. Ellis didn’t want kids. He didn’t want a wife. And although Thelma loved babies, I’m not sure she had wanted a third. They certainly should never have married. But there were no alternatives. Back then if you slept with someone, especially if you got pregnant, you got married.
It doomed them both. Maybe they’d been doomed already, but for the rest of her life, Thelma struggled with depression. My father remembers long stretches of days where she never got up from the kitchen table or left the couch. She spent hours staring at nothing, never noticing her son while he fumbled with jars of mayonnaise or peanut butter, his hands too small to pry off the lids.
By the time my father was old enough to walk, Ellis started disappearing again. He passed in and out of my father’s childhood like a ghost, evaporating into thin air the moment he stepped out the door. My father regarded him as a savior. Unsupervised and tormented by half-siblings who locked him in rooms or half-suffocated him, my father lived for the day Ellis would return and rescue him. But each time he drifted back into their lives, he was taciturn and uneasy. He seemed scared of loving anyone at all. And so, confronted with the naked need of his son’s love, he always vanished again. Until the final act, the final vanishing, into Alzheimer’s and death.
My father loathed and blamed his mother for all of this. His father, he insisted, was a wounded and deeply misunderstood man. As if his grief-stricken, defiant mother who finally lost herself to paralyzing depression and anxiety wasn’t also. But my father, for as long as I knew him, believed the women who hurt him were craven and selfish. As for men, only wronged men would hurt others, and they deserved our sympathy. It is the same myth behind so many headlines today, so many Tweets, so many pleas from universities and lawyers—to wound a man’s pride, to thwart his dreams was to incur violence. To hold him accountable for that violence was only to do him another injustice. The wounded man, my father always insisted, was entitled to the harm he did.
At Ellis’s funeral, they sang “Abide with Me,” and always afterwards, my father never flipped to that page in the hymnal without tearing up. When our Mormon ward sang it on Sundays, he couldn’t get through it before his lips sealed, pressed firmly together, and he sat there in the pew, trying not to weep.
* * *
So my father, starved for father-love, looked to my mother’s father.
“He doesn’t like me,” he complained to my mother after every visit with Grandpa.
“Of course he likes you,” my mother assured him year after year.
But Grandpa didn’t.
Anyone could see how unhappy my mother was. Sitting next to my father at family gatherings, she chewed her lip and picked at a sore she had dug into her left arm above the elbow. The skin had slowly eroded from years of nervous scratching, fingernails peeling away scabs upon scabs, until there was nothing left but an open wound, pink and raw and scaly.
* * *
When I was 20 and the man I knew as Grandpa died—my mother’s father—we began sorting through the things he’d left behind. Among them was Grandpa’s pickup truck. It was a 1981 Dodge Ram, silver and red paneling. Grandpa, ever the mechanic, had kept it in superb condition.
I desperately needed transportation. My family had sold off their van, and my brother had claimed the new family Honda for himself. With two jobs at one campus and classes at another, I could barely manage. So I asked if anyone wanted the truck. No one did. Grandma gave me her blessing.
My father drove Grandpa’s pickup over the Cascades and parked it in our gravel driveway. But when I asked for the keys, my father said there must have been some misunderstanding.
“The truck’s for me,” he said.
“But you have your sports car. What do you need another car for?”
“You can’t drive a truck,” he said.
“It can’t be that different from a van.”
“This is for me, okay?” he said. “I’m already paying for your classes, and I need it for yard work.”
“Okay then,” I said. “Use it for yard work. But paying for those classes doesn’t help me if I can’t get to them. And it means a lot to me. I have some special memories of Grandpa in this truck.”
“Look, it’s not yours. It’s mine. And you’re not getting in that truck unless I’m driving it,” he said.
“No,” I corrected him. “I’m not getting in that truck at all if you’re driving it. It was Grandpa’s truck, and that’s how I want to remember it. If I’m in it, I’m the one who’s driving. Period.” And I walked away.
Soon after, my father sold the truck.
I don’t know what happened to it. I wasn’t there when he sold it. I just came home one day, and it was gone.
* * *
I began asking my mother for rides. The local bus was unreliable and ran only a few times a day. Without a ride, I had to walk one hour each way to my commuter bus.
When my father found out, he forbid my mother from driving me anymore. Sometimes, seeing me start the long trek with my loaded backpack, a neighbor took pity on me. But more often, I walked.
None of this was new, of course. My father had waited outside my Tae Kwon Do lessons with the car running, refusing to come in when invited, seething in the shadow behind the wheel. Once when I was 17, he and my mother simply showed up at a friend’s house and ordered me into the car. Stupefied, my friends had watched from their door as my parents sped away with me in the back seat. Eventually I began driving myself places, but I often arrived home to find him waiting for me. After attending Navaratri with a friend, I came home wearing the sari she had loaned me for the Hindu festival. And there was my father, arms crossed as he waited on the couch with the light on. “I had a dream,” he said. “This is idol worship.”
I sighed and slipped out of my sandals. I pointed to the picture of Christ on my mother’s hope chest. “Is that idol worship?”
I was used to my father’s paranoia, his histrionic reactions, his fear of everything I liked that he didn’t—and his resentment of everything I liked that he did. Once an accomplished sketch artist himself, he took my oil painting supplies away from me as soon as I finished the class. Once a student of karate, he denied me medical care when I was injured in Tae Kwon Do class.
There was no way for me to please my father. I had learned that a long time ago. He read every choice in terms of how it made him feel and reacted accordingly. So I tried to pretend it didn’t matter.
I was on schedule to graduate early with a major in Interdisciplinary Studies and a minor in Education. A plan was forming: graduate, move out, and earn a teaching certificate on my own dime.
But ever since my body had sprouted adolescent breasts and armpit hair, my father had been telling me that I owed him. It had always filled me with resentment. I carried a desire to slap him like a loaded gun. Now, his words no longer felt punitive. They felt vindictive. When I said I could barely make it to my classes on time, when I pointed out that I had to wade through miles of snow without a ride, his answer was always the same: you owe me. It felt like he was getting revenge. But for what, I never could guess.
I offered more money, more chores. But it was never enough. What I owed him, apparently, was my dignity. My freedom. The humiliation of arriving to work or to college classrooms, sweaty and mud-splotched.
Still, he complained. The more successes I had in the face of his restrictions, the more vehemently he reminded me.
You owe me.