I know that the title of this blog, along with the many depressing details that I’ve posted about my life, can give you the impression that there’s nothing in my life that I feel thankful for. I can assure you that isn’t true. While there may be many moments when I wish that I were someone else, with a different past, the fact is that I am proud of the person that I am now, and am deeply grateful for the things that have brought me here.
Having said that, anyone who has read my writings before should know by now not to expect a Thanksgiving message from me to sound anything like an episode of The Waltons. Truthfully speaking, I’m not particularly fond of this time of the year, since it brings back so many really bad memories of irresponsible acts of the past and, what is becoming even more troubling as I get older, the pain I know that the winter season will bring to my arthritic bones. But this is, nonetheless, a message of thanks for my parents, who are now both deceased. And if you bear with me, and temporarily put aside the things I’ve said about them in previous writings, you’ll see why.
When seeing my image reflected in a mirror, recognizing the resemblance between myself and my mother has always been easy. The mixture of African and Native-American ancestry really does stand out. But the resemblance to my father has always been more difficult, despite the fact that we have very similar statures and complexions. I guess I can attribute this lack of surety to the doubts that have always persisted as to whether or not he actually was my father, although, considering my mother’s appearance, it’s clear that my father had to have been at least half-White.
Well I think that I can now put to rest my doubts about that at least, after seeing myself in the mirror last night now that I’ve cut off all my hair (as I feel compelled to do from time to time). While I’m sure that most men can see their resemblance to their fathers much earlier on than I have, you must remember that my father was already 57 years old when I was born. So it’s only now that I’m approaching similar years, and have rid myself (for now) of the long hair that he detested so much, that I can see the ghosts of both my mother and my father looking back at me from the mirror.
I’ve written in this blog, mostly in the articles for the My Life volume, about how little I really know of my parents and their backgrounds. And I’m sure that what I’ve written has revealed my confusion as to how I should go about reconciling my life to theirs. But somehow I feel compelled to do so, as if it’s some kind of “rite of passage” that I must complete in order for my life to be my own. I’m not really sure how to do that with such limited knowledge of their lives to work from, so I must be content to work with what I have: The “quality” time I actually spent with them.
When my mother wasn’t drunk and fighting with her boyfriend, abusing my siblings and/or their kids, or using me to leverage cash from my father, she was actually a very pleasant, “earthy” type person to be around. She loved fishing and hunting, and didn’t seem to see all the gory work in the kitchen afterwards as being the really big chore it appeared to my eyes. But I guess that was just her roots showing themselves. Being legally blind, I was just amazed that she could see well enough to do any of this stuff at all! And while I was always fascinated with the hows and whys of cooking, the bloody preparation was usually enough to send me off looking for other things to investigate.
To this day however, and as long as it wasn’t something a little city boy who had watched too many Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons couldn’t imagine eating, I remember her meals as always being an amazing treat! I miss them sorely every time Thanksgiving rolls around – that is, as long as I don’t think of the times when we had live animals around long enough for me to become attached before the big day!
But by far, the things we shared the most was our love for those old western TV shows and movies. It wasn’t until I attempted to produce a listing for this post that I realized just how many of them we watched together! Shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Maverick, Wagon Train, The Big Valley (my mother absolutely loved Barbera Stanwick!) and The Lone Ranger. And the movies like those with Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy and, of course, her all time favorite: Shane. It’s funny that I hadn’t thought of it until now, but she used to actually quote lines from these characters as her way of addressing difficult issues people face in life. I find myself doing the same thing every day!
And those weren’t the only shows and movies we watched together. Also like myself, she loved the cop dramas like The Fugitive and The Naked City, and the spy shows like I Spy (the first show with a Black leading man), The Man From Uncle and Secret Agent. I’ll always remember that last one because of it’s famous theme song by Johnny Rivers. I actually have a copy of it, along with the themes to most of the shows mentioned here – and many that are not. As she was, unlike me, a very religious woman, it was with my mother that I also watched epic movies like The Ten Commandments and King Of Kings. We actually went together to see King Of Kings in a theater when it first came out.
I guess when it comes right down to it, the thing about her that is most reflected in me is a recognition and reverence for the heroic – and the need to know that we can be so much more than we are. I don’t think I’ve ever really appreciated just how alike we are in that respect. And although my TV and movie heroes tend to have a more high-tech, science-fiction feel to them, underneath it all they’re the same. Hell, one of my favorite shows these days is even called Heroes, and my all-time favorite was called The Greatest American Hero (which just happened to have to same co-star Bill Cosby had in I Spy – I included a clip from it in Inspiration)! In hindsight, I can see how our shared longing for “bigger than life” heroes is, at least in part, the root of the problems with depression and addiction my mother and I also have in common. And I think that that’s probably why she first admired, and then came to hate, my father so much as well.
You see, unlike my mother and myself, my father was much more like the heroes in all those old shows and movies, in that he, at least outwardly, exuded that sense of independent confidence that they all seemed to have in common. You know, that “self-contained” quality that allows heroes to get on with the task at hand, without allowing the chaos and human stupidity going on around them to deter them from their chosen path. With the exception of myself (the only “weakness” I think he had), I don’t think my father ever allowed any “feelings” about what other people thought or wanted to interfere with his goals. As you might imagine, this quality, combined with the fact that he could explode into violence over a perceived transgression at the drop of a hat, didn’t exactly endear him to many people.
As far as I can remember, and with only the rare deviations for my benefit, my father was all business, all of the time. Between the pool hall that I spent so much time in, as well as his other “businesses” ranging from the barely legal to the strictly forbidden, he had a hand in quite a few money making enterprises. But I don’t think that it was the pursuit of money that drove him as much as it was the desire to be completely independent from any power that others might attempt to wield against him. I can only guess as to what the roots of this were in his life, but it’s not exactly a rare trait in American history. In fact, I think that if he had been born White instead of a half-breed, his name might well have been listed amongst those so-called “robber barons” that historians have painted in such a poor light, but without whom this country could not have achieved the greatness that it did.
Not only can I now see his ghost reflected in my mirrored image, I now also see it reflected in my views on life in general and even in my writings for this blog, although we talked very little about such issues and I don’t recall him having much of a sense of humor at all. Like that old “show me, don’t tell me” saying, he let his actions do his talking for him. And for that example, I owe him a great deal. Starting with the cash he laid out for us to count together every night, through helping me make sense of the scribblings on paper people made that have since become so important in my life, he is without a doubt the person I owe my love of learning to more than anyone else. I just wish that I had had more time, in the shadow of his confident presence, to develop a little more of that confidence for myself as well.
I can’t honestly say that my father was anyone’s idea of a “hero,” or even if he were what anyone would call a “good” man. He sure as hell was no “pilgrim,” and I doubt that Thanksgiving meant any more to him than the many other things that he was called on to provide for. But he was undeniably his own man, and regardless of the issues surrounding how he made a living, that’s a character trait that I can respect, and am now proud to call my own. And since I don’t possess even as much as a photo to remember him by, I guess that my memories, and my character, and his ghost in the mirror, will have to suffice.
As always, there are songs from my collection that just naturally seem to match the subject matter of the post I’m working on. In this case, I’m actually surprised at the two that have bubbled up from the depths of my consciousness. Perhaps, like the other revelations I’ve gained from writing this, I now have a better idea of why these songs have always meant so much to me. You might say that, in a very real sense, through the various stages of the writing and editing process, these songs have literally helped me to write this post.
Elton John – Roy Rogers
Sometimes you dream, sometimes it seems
There’s nothing there at all
You just seem older than yesterday
And you’re waiting for tomorrow to call
You draw to the curtain and one thing’s for certain
You’re cozy in your little room
The carpet’s all paid for, God bless the TV
Let’s go shoot a hole in the moon
And Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Returning to our silver screens
Comic book characters never grow old
Evergreen heroes whose stories were told
Oh the great sequined cowboy who sings of the plains
Of roundups and rustlers and home on the range
Turn on the TV, shut out the lights
Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Nine o’clock mornings, five o’clock evenings
I’d liven the pace if I could
Oh I’d rather have a ham in my sandwich than cheese
But complaining wouldn’t do any good
Lay back in my armchair, close eyes and think clear
I can hear hoof beats ahead
Roy and Trigger have just hit the hilltop
While the wife and the kids are in bed
Elton John – Levon
Levon wears his war wound like a crown
He calls his child Jesus
`Cause he likes the name
And he sends him to the finest school in town
Levon, Levon likes his money
He makes a lot they say
Spend his days counting
In a garage by the motorway
He was born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas day
When the New York Times said God is dead
And the war’s begun
Alvin Tostig has a son today
And he shall be Levon
And he shall be a good man
And he shall be Levon
In tradition with the family plan
And he shall be Levon
And he shall be a good man
He shall be Levon
Levon sells cartoon balloons in town
His family business thrives
Jesus blows up balloons all day
Sits on the porch swing watching them fly
And Jesus, he wants to go to Venus
Leaving Levon far behind
Take a balloon and go sailing
While Levon, Levon slowly dies
To be clear, these songs were not chosen because they represent how I remember my parents. They were chosen because they represent how I see my parents reflected in me. While my mother may have been a bit of a dreamer, and my father was definitely hard core, the pitiful personality traits characterized by these lyrics are meant to reflect only on me. And I’m absolutely certain that my parents would not have seen the humor in my having chosen them that I do.
I have no idea what my parents would think of what I’ve done with the life they gave me. Having died only a few years ago, my mother was aware of most of my accomplishments and my troubles, but we hadn’t talked much in the preceding years. If I had to guess, I think she’d probably be proud of me, and full of anger towards those she blamed for my downfall. I blame no one but myself. It’ll soon be 40 years since my father died, so it’s much harder to guess what he’d think. He’d probably be pretty much in agreement with my political views, while being scornful of how much time I’ve wasted “philosophizing” and talking about how I feel about things.
I am indeed thankful for the life they gave to me. And if there is one thing that I have to be thankful for that my parents did not, it’s the fact that my “philosophizing” will leave my kids with so much more to remember me by than my parents left to help me remember them. But then again, that’s a lesson I learned from them as well, isn’t it?
So you see, even a person like me, that sometimes seems to be forever locked away in his own personal Hell, can find things in his life to be thankful for. And in writing this, I have also found that, in spite of the bad things I remember about my parents, they were also my heroes.
I want ice water.