Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Picture Clues

It’s been one of those mysteries in my life that remained unspoken and never talked about. A vacuum in my memory bank that’s never been filled-in. Granted, I was too young to understand all of its ramifications but I still feel cheated even today.  Yet to be honest I’m not sure how I would have reacted if I had understood what it meant not to have a father in my life growing up.

There were no pictures or other mementos of him ‘ever’ in our house. It was as if he never existed in the first place. By the time I had finally matured and became curious about my lineage those memories of her distant past had become a fog clouding my mother’s mind. About the only thing I could be sure of was that I once had a father and he died at a (relatively) young age. End of story.

Or so I thought.

Curiosity raised its finicky head about the same time I posted a blog entitled ‘Something for Judy’ on my Facebook page. In perusing an old box of photographs of my brief encampment on Smith Avenue with my first play date named Judy, I came across some photos of my father and myself. Of course, I’d seen those photos before but back then my eyes were vacant and mind-closed. This time around I looked at those glimpses of my past with a much different minds-eye.

There are clues in those pictures…in the clothes, mannerisms, posture, location and a hundred other nuances that spoke volumes about the man that gave me life. By reading into them with the inquisitiveness of a writer and a curiosity of past traits passed down to me, there are answers (unconfirmed, of course) in what those pictures were saying.

So without being maudlin or clinically antiseptic, I began to study the clues some unknown photographer presented to me. There were stories in those images that said so much and yet revealed so little. I did my surgical inspection without the benefit of any oral history pasted down from my mother. And I was cognizant of her refusal to recognize that part of her past life. If there was any prejudice, hard feelings or hidden shame in their relationship it had slipped away with her last breath here on earth.

So who was this man that was a part of my life for less than two years then was gone forever? Who was this Arthur LaComb whose lineage could be traced back to Quebec, Canada but little else beyond that?

For one thing, he seemed to like to dress me as he dressed. Today he’d be called fashion-wise, nattily attired or very smooth. Back then perhaps even labeled a ladies’ man. That trait ended with him.

My grandmother (on his side) was in our lives for a brief period of time but she was certainly never a part of my life afterwards. My sister said she visited us once then disappeared after her son died.

From research on Ancestry.com, my wife discovered that my uncle (his brother) lived in Los Angeles until he died in the mid-70s. Obviously, uncle never bothered to ever get a hold of us when we were growing up.

My father was in the service (the Navy I believe). Story goes that he hurt his back and got discharged but I never got a clear answer what happened to him.

He was a smoker and liked to hang out in bars. My mother commented on his drinking only once or twice and left it at that. A cousin once said he was a pleasant drinker and funny when he got drunk…as opposed to a mean drunk, I suppose.

Turns out, I have a half-sister. I think her name was Beverly. I knew my father had been married once before. This came up when I saw a picture of a young girl with us way back when. Then my mother remarked once back in the eighties, “Oh yes, you have a half-sister who lives in a trailer park in Florida. She came to visit us once.’ I guess I was in the fourth or fifth grade at the time but I don’t remember her visit. We never heard from her again. My mother never explained why she also disappeared from our lives and I was too young to ask or care.

The story of my parents' breakup has been clouded by time and my mother’s selective memory. As the story goes it was a Catholic priest who declared that their marriage wasn’t valid because my father’s first marriage hadn’t been properly annulled in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The priest declared that therefore they couldn’t live together...in sin. My mother, being a devout Catholic, complied. She said there were no jobs for a short order cook after the war and thus my father had to move away. That was in 1945.

When I asked my mother if my father ever wrote or sent money to her over those years that he was gone, she said no. That, in my book, was desertion. She didn’t say it was. She just couldn’t argue it wasn’t.

The story of his death is also a vapid cloud that kept changing tones and colors as it was retold over the years. It seems in the winter of 1948 my father was traveling back from the west coast to be with us for Christmas when he stopped in Missoula, Montana.

He had a massive heart attack in his hotel room and died there. Hell of a way to die; alone and unknown. Supposedly his cash and other valuables were rifled from his room before the front desk was notified. My Mom said he had Christmas presents for us. My sister remembers getting a pretty doll. I’m told I got a gun and holster set. My father was buried in Missoula, Montana in a pauper’s grave. My sister took a train out to visit his gravesite once. I never have.

So for all intents and purposes, my sister and I lived with our mother as three separate individuals until I went into the service and my sister got married. It was just the three of us under one roof and managing our lives the best we could.

At a very early age my aunts made it clear to me that I was better off without my father around. Even at six years old I got the picture. They didn’t like him very much and they carried that animosity over to my sister and me. I could never figure out why we were stigmatized for the sins of our father.

Growing up, I was vaguely aware of other nuclear families that had a father and mother. But we had our home on Randolph Avenue and that was our abode; minus all the trappings of Ozzie and Harriett and the Cleavers. It never registered to me what a real family might be like.

I’m grateful for those old pictures of my dad and me. Not because they answer any questions. They certainly don’t. And my mother’s refusal to talk about that part of her past has left a huge hole in that part of my life. Despite that I can’t complain.

I’ve had a good life. I’m married to a wonderful woman, forty-five years and counting. I’ve got great kids and wonderful grandchildren. It’s been ‘all good.’ And for a very brief period of time back on Smith Avenue in old Saint Paul it looks like we were a family… a family just like everyone else.

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