E.e. cummings

HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR BLUEEYED BOY, MISTER DEATH -

June 19, 1994|By Dea Adria Mallin

Everyone else remembers the day JFK died; I remember the day my father died.

In my family, I am a kind of Cassandra. The truth makes its way me, flows to me like water seeking the path of least resistance. I have never been afraid of the truth . . . even when I was very small and my mother would lift my brother and me to the window seat to watch in the night for my father's homecoming. It was very dark and the winter cold would seep through the windowpane and make me shiver in my Dr. Dentons. There were nights my father did not come home until early morning, and although my mother never said a word, never gave shape to her fears, never explained anything, long after we were out of Dr. Dentons and had lives of our own to occupy every waking moment, in my dreams I knew that one day Daddy really wouldn't come home.

Only I had to remain mute. There was no place in my family -- or perhaps anywhere in those post-war days of three square meals, Saturday matinees, and renewed faith -- for anything but the pursuit of happiness. Instead, I was ever alert to the disaster awaiting a family with a father who gambled. Whether to answer an internal cry or the externals of a wife and three children, he gambled. As Cassandra, I would distract my mother and sister when they would lean hungrily over the Hermes handbag counter. "Daddy doesn't make that kind of money," I whispered to the counter tops.

When he was only fourteen years old, my father had been touted by the newspapers as the youngest freshman ever admitted to the ivy halls of his distinguished university. He had held his brilliant head up among older and sturdier freshmen in their beanies by playing cards like a wizard until the weary dawn, then going straight to classes and getting A's. By the time he was my father, he was playing bridge with Charles Goren and placing his bets on horses from fancy clubhouses. But his income as a lawyer was not adequate to the gambler he was becoming. Too soon, three teen-age children would displace him into middle age ("old age," if my brother was correct) when he would face bills for three college tuitions.

I adored my father. I have his shell-shaped ears, his even teeth, his long legs, and, like my father, I never needed anything fancy to make me feel alive. Like me, he mused on creation and destruction, everything and nothing, and so felt compelled to tease the syllables of language into poems. I think I had the only father in the neighborhood who, without getting hit by a car, could walk all the way home from the 6 o'clock train reading the New York Times without looking up. He was the only father coming home in his business suit on a sweltering evening before air conditioners who could turn the jump rope for us so that all the girls could jump double dutch. And surely he was the only father on the block bellowing out Rudyard Kipling verses from the shower in unabashed tunelessness.

****

I suppose we were nearly grown, the three of us, by that summer, and perhaps that made it easier for him to choose to exit the planet.

It was late August -- lazy and hot and a time to wrap up before autumn. My father was scheduled to arrive at the Philadelphia Airport from a meeting with Atlanta clients at 8 p.m. I had returned that afternoon from my summer camp job as waterfront counselor. My brother, just back from hitchhiking across the United States in preparation for writing The Great American Novel, was flinging his filthy stuff into the laundry room. My sister was due home in a few days from study in Mexico to share our room again.

At 11:30 p.m., after a date with my summer boyfriend, I bounced in the front door where my mother met me, an oddly familiar distraught look consuming her pretty face. Daddy had not come home. Yes, he had been a passenger aboard the plane, and no, there'd been no mishaps nor delays.

Then why wasn't he home yet?

My mother picked up the phone to call her closest friend, Lillian -- "Aunt" Lillian to us -- her fear visibly mounting. Pragmatic and level-headed Lillian counseled my mother to drive to the airport to seek more information. My mother turned to my brother, and they made the 45-minute drive together, leaving me behind. They had their mutual company and their joint mission as a defense to keep the mind in check. I remained stationary, the appointed guardian of the telephone, but my mind drove the road of every imaginable disaster. Daddy had fallen. Daddy'd had a heart attack. Daddy had careened off the road. Daddy had been abducted at gunpoint in some bizarre case of mistaken identity.

My mother and brother returned from the airport. Nothing.

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