Thursday, March 03, 2005

I'll just have tea or water, thank you

I think I have blocked out a lot of time spent with my father. Strangely enough, he is probably the one family member with whom I spent the most time. I can remember a time in the late sixties or early seventies--must have been the early seventies...around the 1972 elections. I can picture myself at age thirteen, straight sun-bleached blond hair, wearing a Texaco uniform and hat to match the ones my dad wore. He had me convinced that Richard Nixon was God! His side of the family always voted Republican for some reason. My mom's family were staunch Democrats. Anyway, I was still in my naive years and would have done anything for the affection of a man. I would even have voted Republican. Could it be that Log Cabin Republicans are merely striving for the love of a distant authority figure? I just have the most difficult time figuring those boys out!

So there I was, at age thirteen, a veteran of merchandising at my father's side. I started work at the "station", as we called it, when I was about nine years old. This all began with a need to occupy my time. After school each afternoon until 7 P.M. I would sweep the floor, put price codes on the merchandise, pump gas, and sort bottles according to the brand of soft-drink that they contained. This last job was particularly time-consuming and mindless. I often played French music and learned the vocabulary contained within the lyrics while "straightening bottles".

My dad was an opportunist. I did not realize it then, nor do I really comprehend now, just how deeply our poverty ran, but dad had grown accustomed to finding his nickels and dimes where ever he could. So had the community. My dad, along with a conspiracy of drink-bottle vendors, had decided to make soda-pop bottles legal tender. Each unbroken bottle that was returned to my father's store would fetch a nickel. (They later brought in as much as 10 cents per bottle.) This was a godsend to some of the local families. They would go on bottle-collecting forays along the highways and roads in the neighborhood picking up bottles that had been tossed out by tourists.

The trick was that my father gave a nickel a trade. In other words, you were given credit for a certain sum of money that you then could use to purchase items in the store, after a deduction for sales tax. This ensured that the money would be spent in our store and that dad would get the profit from his markup on merchandise. People would bring in hundreds of bottles at a time and those bottles inevitably needed to be "straightened". Each wooden drink-bottle crate was made to hold twenty-four bottles, and after I had filled a crate with all Mountain Dew, or all Pepsi, or all Coke bottles, I would lift the crates into the appropriate stacks of crates within the old garage bay of the service station. Later in the week, each of the soft-drink vendors would arrive and take these crates of empties back to their processing plant while leaving us a new inventory of their sodas. While my hands and arms worked through these filthy glass vessels, my mind could go upon the most fascinating journeys or into the most obsessive-compulsive of loops….fantastic for rote memory of vocabulary in a foreign language.

My imagination was not such a good friend to have, though, when I would reach for bottle that I would find to be covered in vaseline or some other, equally disgusting lubricant. At those moments, my mind went to places I would rather have avoided at the time and my hands went into hot water and detergent. It is truly amazing that I never came down with hepatitis from handling those filthy vessels. It has even crossed my mind that my longevity in the face of AIDS could have come from having been exposed to a large variety of pathogens during my childhood. Handling vaseline-coated bottles, swimming in the ditches along the highway after a heavy summer downpour, cavorting in piles of lime brought in to be applied to corn fields, or walking through pigsties until my shoes came off, never to be found again…I suspect I was quite well inoculated for most things and rather well exposed to a variety of carcinogens. I guess I could have taken a clue from the out-of-state tourists’ faces, as they watched us local kids take running dives into the roadside ditches. Their horror was always a good source of amusement to us.

As time passed, more and more of my time was spent with my dad at the station. By the 1972 elections, I was working every afternoon after school for three to four hours and then alternated opening the store on Saturday and Sunday with dad. I would arrive at the store at 7 A.M. on the mornings that I opened up, but on the alternate day, by God, I could sleep in until 8 A.M. Then, we would work together until 8 P.M.—every day and every week. We did get to take Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and Easter Sunday off. I grew to view that place as a prison. My dad was demanding and picky about how things should be done, but worse, he was condescending, to me and to the customers. In addition, as I grew older and began to play basketball for my local high school team, I was so totally exhausted that I would sometimes skip work just to sleep and then deal later with the guilt of having let my dad down or with his direct anger for not having shown up. When I played basketball on the Junior Varsity team, I was sad to know that my dad never attended a single one of my games because they started at 7 P.M. and he felt he had to work until 8.

This insane work schedule continued until my mom had a heart attack during the summer of one of my high school years. After that, she sold her business and we started taking off Saturdays from the store. The rest of the work schedule remained the same and I could not wait until I left home to attend UNC-Chapel Hill in 1977. When I graduated from UNC, I swore not to move back home for fear of being trapped into a life of drudgery at the store. I found myself going home with infrequency, especially after I came out to myself and started to feel the pointless guilt and pressure from my dad for carrying on the family name.

As a result, most of the memories of my dad are not particularly fond ones, tinged by the memory of being treated as a slave to the family business. However, when dad became sick in 1993, and during the last six months of his life, he turned into a sweet, pitiable little old man with cancer. Each moment that we spent with each other from that point on was sacred, framed by our imminent deaths, if you will. I had not told him of my illness, and could not bring myself to do so when I knew his death was right around the corner. Instead, I brought to bear all the knowledge I had gained from watching my friends die and tried to make my dad feel as good as I could. We planted a tree together in my old backyard as a symbol of survival. He thought that it was his, I knew that it was ours. Unfortunately, the tree died. I had made a huge spectacle of having my mom water it after dad and I had dug the hole and placed it in its new home, so the death of the tree seemed a particularly bad omen.

One weekend, I went to visit my dad and took some movies to watch with him. I am not sure if I had subconsciously chosen some of the titles or not, but among the films was Amy Tan’s "The Joy Luck Club". I remember seeing my dad get so engrossed in the film that he literally was sitting on the edge of his recliner. It didn’t occur to me until much later how much that film must have impacted him. I could see that he was paying close attention to the stories of children whose parents had demanded so much from them. Not long afterwards, on another visit home, he called me aside and told me that he didn’t understand my homosexuality, but that he accepted me for who I was. He also told me that he didn’t really plan on having a male "daughter-in-law", but that my partner was as good a partner for me as any woman could have been and that he loved us both. This was dad’s blessing for me. It finally set me free from the need to please him. A few weeks later, he died.

I can remember a few sweet moments with dad from my childhood. He used to cut a chilled watermelon in the heat of the summer. His technique was to split the melon lengthwise into halves. We would then eat the flesh of the melon from one half and mash the remainder of the pulp within the rind with a fork in order to free the juice inside. He would carve a "mouth-hole" in the side of the watermelon rind, placing two crossed forks over the hole to strain out the watermelon seeds. Finally, we would take turns sipping freely the sweet red juice, my dad holding half of a watermelon to my mouth for me to enjoy the special moment with him.



Anonymous Ben said...

Ron- I admire your ability and desire to find something positive in everything difficult and unpleasant. It's always drawn me to you and I think it's probably one of the secrets to a good and long life...

3/27/2005 07:09:00 PM  

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