Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Childish Things

"But when I was no longer a child, I put away childish things..." (1 Corinthians 13:11)

One of the good parts of being a grown-up is getting to be your own parent. Feel not taken care of? Feeling not cherished? Feeling unprotected and undefended? Feeling unappreciated and abandoned? You get to do that for yourself. You get to be the parent. To you.

My sister has spent nearly every waking hour cleaning, sorting, discarding, repacking for storage, in my father's house. I have gone in at the end to help her tie up loose ends, to sweep and Swiffer, to try and make the place at least somewhat presentable for showing to sell at the end of the year, when the probate court finally says it is our. Finishing the emptying of this house -- seeing it actually empty -- I find that there's a strange freedom in it. But a fear and unfamiliarity with the house has taken over that prompts a little bit of fear. It's not our house anymore. It has ceased to belong to us, or to anyone else. It will again, shortly before it's demolished to make room for a 4,000 square foot ranch style home, no doubt. But it's empty now, of all of its contents, as if it had been turned on its side and shaken clean.

No more negative energy coming from that dark, dark house, where I first moved when I was my daughter's age. The negative energy left in early July. I used to believe the house was haunted. Now I know it was. It was haunted by a sadness and terror so profound, so desperate that it permeated every corner of that house. It was my father's terror and sadness. I've come to see that his meanness and cruelty were really just outward manifestations of his fear of the world.

I believe that we all have demons. We all are haunted. We spend a good part of our youth hiding from our demons, whether it's through drugs, alcohol, workaholism, religious zealotry, daredevil stunts or nonstop partying. But our demons are not so easily fooled. They're looking for us. And, invariably, they find us. And how well or badly we handle being found, I think, is the crux of how we end up.

My father did not fair well when the demons finally caught up to him, I don't think. He became scared -- to work, to drive, to leave his house, to be in a group of people, to talk to strangers. When we were growing up, my father had that Texas talent of being able to get any group of strangers talking, to him and to each other -- even in elevators, where no one speaks, lest the mechanism snap and we all go plummeting to the ground. He made friends with everyone, everywhere. Gregarious, charming, funny, smart -- he could be the life of the party. He was still friends some forty years later with the couple that had the season ticket seats next to his at the Colliseum for Los Angeles Rams games (yes, you young sprites -- they started in L.A.)

But as he grew older, he let his age and his grey hair, his receding hairline and his fading youth take hold. He had some run-ins on the job with hotter, younger writers, directors and producers who made him feel as if he were washed up. This is all part of the strategy of this business, of course -- it's commonplace. He wasn't the only one, and plenty of other men his age and older had weathered that onslaught and given back as good as they'd gotten. But he let them break him down, make him mean and old and useless and used up before his time. And I think it was mostly his fear. My Dad was always a blusterer, but even as a child, I think I saw that he was also a fraidy-cat. The reason he talked to people in elevators is because he didn't feel safe being quiet amongst them. If he got them talking, he could get a gauge on where they stood, both logistically and emotionally.

He had a hard time reading people -- their energy, their affect. He was one of the most inappropriate people I've ever known. When he was young, with a facile, spry sense of humor, that lack of social editor could make him wickedly funny and irreverent. As he got older and slowed up, instead of simply changing his tack, learning what to say and what not to say and when, and altering the trajectory of his barbs to places less sensitive to the touch, he simply got vicious and harsh. He knew he was saying things that offended people, that hurt them, and though he tried not to show it, that bothered him. He was like a man in a foreign land who speaks little of the native language, and becomes angry at the indigenous peoples for their refusal to understand him.

Because I believe now, as I've never believed before, that my father really, really wanted people to like him. That was important to him in a way he could never admit. He wanted to be liked. More than that, he wanted to be adored. Maybe even wanted to be everybody's favorite. That's why acting was so important to him, I suppose, and such a disappointment when it didn't work out, and he had to turn to writing. Though he was good at it, maybe it wasn't the best profession for him. It's a solitary endeavor, and requires the doer to be willing to do a stint in isolation to get the job done. Alone with this thoughts was maybe the worst place he could be. It was probably hard for him, thinking of how social he used to be when we were small. But it got easier and easier for him, until one day, he went inside, and just never came out again. On many levels, both real and figurative.

Now, it's official. Jack Sowards has left the building. And, after thirty years of collecting every material thing he could get his hands on -- guns, photographs, books, magazines (some from the early 60s), memorabilia, broken furniture, various house vermin, roof leaks, televisions, computers, various parts of computers, software (mostly on 5 1/4" disks), LPs, CDs, VHSs, DVDs, a gaggle of functioning and non-functioning watches and lighters -- his house is now nearly emptied of its contents. Thirty years of nicotine stains have left the walls a deep caramel brown, with only occasional squares where a painting, picture or piece of furniture once stood to reveal the original color.

This is what's left of my father's life once it's been picked over and disassembled and transported. The house is empty. Not a ghost in sight. Just a badly dilapidated, uncared for house that was once quite a nice place to live. It is our inheritance. It is our legacy. It and the memory of the man who lived here is what we have left of that time. But that's okay. Most of those memories are painful ones for me. They're from my late adolescence -- the remnants of my childhood, I suppose. But I am no longer a child. And so, all that's left now -- now that my mother and father have both died -- is for me to be the parent.

It's time to put away childish things.


(cross-posted at MySpace)


  1. Beautifully written and truly melancholy. It is hard to realize the fears of our parents and their true issues when they are gone. If you'd like, I could try to parent you... go to your room young lady! Of course I'm a zillion miles from your room with no ability to enforce that so I suppose you are on your own. I'm halfway there myself. All my LOVE... I remember that house during that summer it was just you, me, Penny and the cats. Do you remember?

  2. Trouble is.... I only have one room at the moment. Unless I go into the bathroom.... Oooo... a nice long bath in a lavender-scented tub. Yep... that oughta teach me...

    Thanks, Mamazuzi...