I didn’t have to think long about what to do next because I had accepted Thoreau’s teachings about simplicity and the Mother Earth News avowal that happiness is best found in rural self-sufficiency. My parents owned eight acres of woodland that they gave to Peggy and me for a house site, and my semi-retired contractor father helped us build a home that had been designed as a ski lodge. At 68, he could still put in a full day’s work. The 1,000 square foot house was bigger than I wanted, my preference being a three-room shotgun (the rooms in a line from front to back) without a bathroom or electricity. Peggy and I settled on the “ski lodge” after she said I would be living alone if I built the house I wanted. The necessity of such compromise was what made a bachelor of Thoreau (that and being refused by the one woman he proposed to plus probable homosexual yearnings), but bachelorhood was not for me.
We broke ground at Route 4, Bogue Chitto, Mississippi, in the late summer of 1977. Our only “blueprint” was a drawing in Popular Mechanics. Dad was definitely the brains of the outfit. I wanted to be more involved in the planning, but his help was implicitly contingent upon him making the structural decisions. This would come back to haunt me. For example, Peggy and I decided on an aluminum roof, but didn’t realize until years afterward that his rafter choice was based upon the assumption that we would never want shingles.
My father was a hard man to work with because of his temper. He would literally curse a 2x4 (“God damn the goddamn mother-fucking goddamn worthless-ass son of a bitching nail-bending mother-fucking goddamn 2x4 to hell, goddamn it!”), exploding every half hour or so into a screaming litany of profanity that sounded like a Satanic Gregorian chant performed by monks on meth. He would throw tools, strangle on sputum, and curse his, “whore of a mother for giving birth to a worthless son of a bitch like me.” Such behavior took all of the pleasure out of house building, yet I bit my tongue because I didn’t think I could pull it off without him. Only once did I complain, “Dad, it’s hard for me to respect you when you talk like that.” “Fuck you. I have no respect for myself, and if you don’t want my help, you just say so, because I sure as hell don’t have to be here.”
On her days off, Peggy would join our little crew, and everything would go a great deal better because my father loved her like a daughter, and would pull back from the worst of his fits. He needed constant emotional management because he would otherwise conclude that people were against him, and Peggy and I were the only ones who were able to avoid pushing his many buttons—even my mother and sister were clueless. Peggy came to have more influence over him than anyone, and the one time she went head-to-head with him, he backed down. I don’t mean it in a prurient way when I say that the greatest love my father ever had was possibly my wife. He would have stood between her and a runaway tank.
Despite his temper, I never saw my father hit anyone. He had been an ardent barroom brawler in his younger years, but he never, to my knowledge, hit my mother or even spanked my sister and me. He always appeared so close to losing control that we lived in fear of him anyway, and my fear progressed into a fear of all men. I always had male friends, but I could never bring myself to lower my guard completely. For example, I wouldn’t lie down if they were standing for fear they would lose their minds and kill me before I could defend myself.
Peggy had insanity in her family too, and she and I have sometimes debated which was worse, with each of us defending our side as less insane. As I write about my father, I can see more clearly than ever how bad off he was. Growing up in his household, I realized he had problems, and I was ashamed of him from my earliest years. Yet, he was never locked away; he had above average intelligence; and he worked 55 hours a week to support his family…What I’m getting at is that it isn’t necessarily in a kid’s best interest to know how bad a situation is. If he can think of it as fairly normal, he can better survive it.
I could write much more about my father’s mental problems, but even though he has been dead since 1994, I don’t think it’s right to share just anything at just any time. I can only tell pieces of his story inasmuch as they’re important to my story.
Posted by Snowbrush