Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dad and Virginia

When Dad was really "sick" and my mother sent him to my granny's, he got the car and she kept the house. He put a sign in the back window of his car that read, "Pete + Siddie" (my parents' nicknames), as if all he had to express his love for my mom was a third-grade intellect. He also bent his radio antenna into the rough shape of a heart. My heart nearly bleeds when I tell you this now, but then I had only the one thought: escaping the humiliation. When I graduated high school, I moved to another town to avoid dealing with the worst of it. There was nothing I could do but watch.

Suddenly, with Virginia, he was my old Dad again, annoying but definitely in possession of his faculties. The more Virginia needed him, the kinder he became. He still had his bullying tendencies, but Virginia took those for concern and did whatever he told her to do. She didn't even notice his criticisms and answered each of his comments with a teasing, flirtatious banter. Once she made him laugh so hard he spit his teeth into his ashtray. Those things count for something.

Virginia's children had nothing to do with her - and that is for them to live with because I know it must have been hell to deal with the situation - but we loved her because she had unwittingly and cheerfully cured my dad. And she loved him with a fierceness that she was forever shouting from the rooftops, and that made him stand taller.

As I said before, there was a lot of money. Once when my dad and I were were driving around at dusk looking for Virginia, who sometimes wandered farther than she should and got caught out in the dark, he told me she was a millionaire. Just matter of factly and without any of the greed that used to sparkle in his eyes when he thought he could get the better of you. He said she got a monthly allowance and had to ask the financial planner for money for extra purchases, like the computer. I was completely amazed. They lived in an apartment that rented for $250 a month.

"She gives me an allowance," Dad said. "Five hundred dollars a month. It makes her happy. I don't spend it; I just put it in the bank. I have my own money."

"I guess you're a modern husband," I teased, "being taken care of by your wife."

"She takes pretty good care of me," he said. "She always pays the dinner bill."

Virginia and my father went to Alaska on a cruise ship, and they came home with a camera full of photos, mostly of the food the ship served. Dad was an old hand at ships, but Virginia could not stop talking about the opulence. It seemed that they had no memory of icebergs or whales or dolphins, which I assume you might see on an Alaskan cruise, but instead they told about their lodgings, as if they had spent ten days in Buckingham palace.

Virginia would still buy a store cake every once in a while, and sometimes Dad would let her enjoy it in her own compulsive way, and sometimes he would put half of it in the freezer when she wasn't looking. She covered her closet floor in bags of potato chips, pretzels, and corn curls, toilet paper and fun-size candy bars, two or three layers deep.

"Be sure and come over here for the Apocalypse," my dad would say. "Virginia's got everything we need."

When Virginia put up new curtains and announced that my father should smoke outside, he picked up his kitchen chair and set it outside the door. I can only imagine what he would have said if my mother had suggested that years before. He had a colorful vocabulary when he wanted to use it. After all, he had been a sailor. Instead, he sat outside the front door and smoked, watching the grass grow, squinting into the sun. Virginia would stand in the door and talk to him through the screen until he'd say, "Quit air-conditioning the whole neighborhood" or "Stop letting the heat out."

When Virginia would become agitated and confused, as she did occasionally, my dad would say, "Ah ah ah," as he used to say to us when we were young and headed in the wrong direction. That always seemed to break Virginia's fixation and she would come back to us. He made the same noise when she tried to take four pieces of pie from the dinner buffet, and then she would put some back.

So they lived a small life in a small town, eating at restaurants, driving on Sundays, watching Lawrence Welk. They seemed well suited to each other, two damaged people holding their hands over the other's broken spots.

They were happily married for six short years, filling in each other's blanks, keeping each other company, giving and receiving by turns, when my dad dropped dead in the middle of the night. With no warning at all: Gone.

Virginia was whisked off by her children, and taken to a town near her money and put into a home for those who couldn't take care of themselves. I know she couldn't, but it seems so unfair. She had all that money and it couldn't fix her. I used to wonder whether she remembered her six years of happiness, because to me that seems like a very small slice in a life very full of disappointments and pain. None of us ever saw her again.

Virginia died a few weeks ago, nearly seven years to the day after my father. She was buried next to him under the big fancy headstone she had installed when he died - with the ghostly engraving of my father's face superimposed over a picture of the ship they took to Alaska. It's gaudy and I hate to see it when I go to the cemetery.

But I will always be thankful for Virginia, who was a lot like Aunt Clara in the old Bewitched show. Nothing went according to plan, but it kind of worked out in the end. She gave us our dad back, even a new improved dad who had feelings and opinions and desires, not like the lump of flesh we'd tried to relate to for years. Can you imagine what it means to his children to have those six years of memories? Like the commercial says: Priceless.

So, Virginia, I hope you rest easy. I am so grateful to have known you. I carry you in my heart.


Today's a better day than yesterday. I got dressed and made the bed and jumped rope until I sweated but good. I'm going to have to get a sports bra before I do too much more jumping. I was surprised that I remembered how to do redhots and crossovers and didn't get tangled too many times. The dogs did not appreciate my talents, or the noise I was making on the hardwood floor. I don't think I'll take it up as a regular activity. I like the purposeful walking much more. Now, I wonder if I could find my old baton and see if I still remember how to twirl it...


So, how did you like my story? I feel better for having told it to you.


Evil Twin's Wife said...

I loved the story. It's really bittersweet. I'm glad you all had a chance to get to know her and love her - and that your dad did too.

Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

what a wonderful - if poignant - story.

thanks for sharing it.

powdergirl said...

That's the best story I've read in a long time, thanks so much for sharing it so engagingly. I think I love Virginia too, what gifts she brought you!

And the sports bra. That's a definite yes, the ladies can't just be left to their own devices you know!

Lilly said...

I was captivated by your story. How wonderful that they found each other and even better that they were happy and you reconnected with your father again.

Virginia had those memories too to last her for the next seven years. Six years may be a small slice but it was quality years by the sound of things. I think its only sad if we let it be.

to me its a beautiful story, a love story all around. I am glad you told us. It filled my heart, truly.

Bunny said...

I'm really at a loss for words. I am very touched by your story, and so glad that you have good memories of your father to replace the bad ones.

DeadpanAlley said...

i have this thing in my eye now. it's making my vision all blurry on that side.

damn you, you've blinded me.

oh, it's only a tiny tear. nevermind....


Sweet Pea said...

Another lovey peak at an interesting life and those in it. Told in your usual warm and witty story telling style.

I love that everyone and every family has a story. Most of the time we are never aware of them and few stories are shared. My father shared some stories about his life in the months before he died--things I never knew. Knowing these stories explained a lot. I never saw him as a boy or a young man--just a father. I wish he would have been willing to tell more about his life long before he did or that I'd had the sense to ask.
I'm glad you have such keen observations about your family and bring them alive so beautifully for us to enjoy.