“Oh little Jeannie, you got so much love, little Jeannie. And you take it where it strikes and give it to the likes of me. Oh little Jeannie, she got so much love, little Jeannie. So I see you when I can, you make me all a man can be” my six year old face stretched as I crooned along with Elton John to what I thought was the sweetest love song this side of Oh Mandy.
“Turn that off” my mother’s jaw tight and eyes now slits where her big, blue eyes once were. I reached up and pushed the chunky rectangular button on the VW radio, settling on Kenny Loggins which I knew would please her. I let my back rest upon the warm and rubbery smelling seat wondering why she reacted so harshly every time that song came on…..
When we first moved to Long Beach to live in my mother’s ex-husband’s home, the big beautiful home full of cruel intentions and sad souls, I spent the majority of my time outside. Just rode up and down on the hill, the rubber wheels of my skates skidding when I would reach the bottom…the pounding of my heart and wheezing of my breath the soundtrack as I made the calf aching ride back to the top of the hill where I would stop, just long enough to catch my breath before kicking my feet out behind me and sailing my body down the hill once again. I craved the silence, the time away from puffed up but oh-so-sad hollowness of the kings of that castle. Coming from where I did, the roach infested, pancake house…well it seemed like a bastion of hope and honesty compared to that big…beautiful house.
As long as the sun was out or the street lights where on, I was out on the street and away from the sadness that seemed to encapsulate that home. Skates, Dolphin shorts and my freakish fetish for feeling the sun on my young flesh….out there I felt safe and was able to get my groove on, skate away the heaviness that weighed upon every spirit that crossed through that doorway. The young men that were coaxed there, promised a safe haven, a place to be who they were…the even sadder ones that clipped their hopes to the belt loop of a man that wanted nothing more than to take advantage of them. They came in, they had their 15 minutes of specialness and they were ushered out without fanfare. I knew what was happening, understood that my brother’s father was preying on those lost souls but was powerless to help or warn them…so I skated.
One afternoon I was out skating and had to dodge the moving trucks that were lugging in the furniture of the folks that were to be our neighbors. I watched as they unloaded the plastic covered couch, held my feet like a giant U as I swung my hips back and forth, my feet separated like a ballerina…toes out and arches high, my body swaying back and forth as the movers unloaded the boxes. I was captivated. Each box holding a story, every black marker scrawled upon bit of cardboard holding some clue as to who was going to be living in the house that rested even higher on the hill than the one I resided in.
“Hi! I’m Neesie” long braided hair, long slinky but powerful body. My new neighbor, also on skates, rolling around the hill that had been my quiet place. She was a couple of years younger than I, her skin dark and perfect glistening in the sun, her smile so bright that I was sure that her home was not the same as mine. I was slightly irked by the perceived intrusion on my playground but I found hope in her smile and willingness to talk to me. Before long we looked like a set of salt and pepper shakers sailing down the hill together. We would skate and play all afternoon but the playtime always ended when a Volvo would pull onto our street and park in her steep driveway. “I gotta go, my dad is home!” she would yell over her shoulder as she skated or trotted away from me.
At first I thought this meant that “dad” was the killer of fun. Just some mean man that didn’t want Neesie playing outside with the neighbor kid. I was afraid of him and I too would scamper off when that Volvo pulled onto the street, but one afternoon while playing in Nessie’s room she jumped up and sounded the playtime is over bell, “Dad is home!”but this time she ended it with, “Come meet him” I was terrified as I made my way to the kitchen, my feet feeling like bricks as I lifted them, my stomach twisted and gurgling, my hands producing so much moisture that I had to wipe them on my shorts after every few steps. Once we reached the entrance to the kitchen and I saw the tall sturdy frame of the man standing there, my heart started racing and I began scanning the joint for the quickest escape route but Nessie, the girl that would run every time he came home….well, she started to run again but this time it was right into his strong arms. “Daddy!’ she yelled as he lifted her to his chest and folded his long arms around her slender frame, “this is the friend I was telling you about” He held her whole body in one arm while extending the other in my direction, “you must be Sam then” his voice deep and smooth as honey as he took my trembling hand in his. “Very nice to finally meet you Sam” he said, his big hand swallowing mine, “How was your day baby?” he asked as he turned his attention back to the girl he was still holding in his arms.
“Why do you always run home when your dad comes home?” I asked her one afternoon, waiting to hear all the drama about how he insisted that she stay inside, or had rules against too much fun, what I heard was not at all what I expected and would leave me mystified and almost painfully curious, “He’s my dad and I want to be with him” Here I had been thinking that she was running off in fear when that Volvo pulled in the driveway but in fact she was running away from me to be with him. I didn’t get it. Her mom had been home all day, if she needed or wanted something she could have given it to her, what was the deal with this “dad” business?
I never really knew my father. I have only vague remembrances of the shape of his face, his eyes the same as mine, the long straight hair, the smell of patchouli. I remember avocado and alfalfa pita sandwiches, the “funny” smell of his cigarettes and a faint feeling of sadness when he would “fall asleep” during one of my visits…..the panic I would feel on the drive home, my mother always crying so hard that I thought she must be in some kind of terrible pain. The way should would sob and shake her head when I would beg her, “What’s wrong mommy?!” She was in fact in terrible pain, but a pain I wouldn’t truly understand until now.
“God, you look like your father when you make that face” a phrase I would hear over and over again. Never quite sure what face she was talking about, what look would make her see him in me, always felt a little guilty when it happened and wished it were not so as it inevitably brought her sadness. Couldn’t change it but so many times I wished that I could. My mother was already so full of heartache and it killed me that my….face brought her even more.
“They found him at Jeannie’s”
She was sitting on the couch, legs tucked in under her bottom, the way she always sat. Her iced tea beside her, a lit cigarette in the ashtray beside it. I remember the phone ringing and the, “No! Oh God. Please No!” the sound of my mother’s hope dying….the thud of the dropped phone and then the sound of my feet smacking against the sticky linoleum floor as I ran to her. He was gone. A part of her was gone too. They found him in the home of the woman he was seeing, in Jeannie’s home….Oh little Jeannie.
My mother died some thirty something years later still madly in love with the man whose face I wore but whose story I never knew. She didn’t speak of him much. At first I thought it was because she hated him but the older I got the more I understood that she couldn’t talk about him, it was too painful for her to remember him. So “dad” or “father” never evoked more than an idea for me, had no feelings other than guilt to attach to what the word meant. Once I met my husband, saw the way my own son lit up, admired and felt safe around him I had a better idea but the actual feeling, well it was just never one that I understood.
“If you are the Samantha Dugan I am looking for I hope to hear from you, I’m your father’s brother” an email waiting for me at work last week. It was so easy for me to respond, to write back and tell him that I was in fact the Samantha he had been looking for. I did it so quickly, with no hesitation and so matter-of-fact. Was not at all prepared for the flood of emotion and feeling that would overtake me as the man whose face I wore story spilled out before me…his brother’s memories on the screen seemed to leap deep inside my chest and become part of me. “He wanted a daughter more than anything and your mother brought him peace in a way that no one else could”….the first time in my almost forty years that I felt like I was being scooped up and held in the strong arms of a father.
Feels like everything has changed in some way. Nothing really has, my life is the same, there is no Volvo to run to but now, well now there is all this information, history, texture to where I came from. He was more than a junkie. He was a very smart man, well travelled as it turns out, and although they died years and worlds apart, my parents were very much in love. I wish she were still here, so I could beam this face, this face that he and I shared….smile at her in that way that made her think of him and just this once let her see this new found pride behind it. Feels amazing….