April 27, 2021
When I woke up this morning fifty-eight years ago, in the upstairs apartment of a two flat we rented on Ashland Avenue in Detroit, there was no one there. It was Saturday morning. Both of my parents should have been there, but somehow I sensed they were not.
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen, where they’d be, waiting for me to wake up to go to Faith Lutheran Church to spend part of the day at confirmation class and choir practice.
The kitchen was empty. It was the back room of the apartment, facing the back yard and a garage we never used. If dad had a car, which was infrequent, he’d park it on the street.
Something drew me to the windows facing out over the backyard. Looking down, I saw my mother, surrounded by several Detroit police officers. She had her arms crossed in front of her and she looked lost.
My father, as it turned out, was inside the garage, and in his car. Well, his body was. He had left this world, on his own terms.
Later, when mom had come back upstairs and told me, she said she wanted me to go to church and see my friends. “Uncle Tom will pick you up afterwards,” she said, “and take you home to Aunt Norma.”
Pastor Scherer was waiting for me at the front door of the church. He took me inside and gave me a hug and told me to come to his office if I needed to leave my friends for some quiet time.
In choir practice I remember sitting alone before others came in and for some reason I had a nickel I was fiddling with on the little desk attached to the chair’s arm, and looking at the floor. Paster Snyder, the choir director, came up to me and gently pushed the coin back to me, causing me to look up and see him. He had the kindest smile and it made me feel a lot better.
When I left the church, there was Uncle Tom, getting out of his car and wrapping his arms around me. In the car was Diane, my cousin, six months younger than I and my best friend in all the world.
I called my father “Daddy” for all the twelve years of my life that he was alive, and yet, when I talk about him now, it seems childish to call him that. When I refer to him these days, as a seventy year old, I always call him “Dad.” That seems wrong, somehow, since I never called him that when he could hear me.
When mom and I moved to Kentucky several months later, to be near my grandmother, there were no Lutheran churches in Muhlenberg County. Mom had grown up in Unity Baptist, anyway, out in the country, so we went to First Baptist Church in Greenville. There, I tried to reconcile my confirmation learnings with Baptist dogma, and fit in with my new friends. But when the preacher, Brother Erwin, told me my father was in hell for his act of suicide, my long, deliberate slide to atheism began.
Brother H. Curtis Erwin died a few years ago and I looked for his obituary. I was able to get a bit of satisfaction when I signed his online memory book. “Bro Erwin, my father committed suicide when I was 12 years old. You told me that, for his act, he could not get into the kingdom of heaven. When you meet up with him in hell, please give him my love.” The funeral home has never taken it down.
It’s taken me a lifetime to reconcile the act of suicide, and its pragmatic role in the world, with the personal grief I feel for my father. But I strongly believe that we have the right to end our lives on our terms, when we decide. I’m sad about my father, but I respect his decision.
For all his faults, and all the shit he put my mother through, my dad was a lovely man. And a great dad. He loved me fiercely.
In memory of Raleigh Evan Hamby, January 1, 1918 – April 27, 1963.
You are now most likely sitting in a comfortable chair, or perhaps unable to leave your bed. The last time I saw you, your belief that you’d done a good job raising your only son fading so rapidly that your face looked like a time lapse photo of a dying rose, you were still relatively young. You were probably younger than I am right now.
I was the second woman he’d tossed aside, despite having to go through the tedium of legal processes. Who knows how many he left when all he had to was stop calling them? But he didn’t just leave women. He left a child as well. Who does that? What is he? What have you brought into this world, my slight statured, pursed lipped former mother in law? What have you wrought?
George was a doll. Damaged, but a doll. WWII did something to him. He had a hard time driving across bridges. What did you offer him, to win such a prize? Perhaps, in your youth, you were not judgmental, or pious, or chilly. If that is so, what happened to you?
Did you know that your daughter loathed you? Perhaps not at the end, when you took care of her in her final illness. Maybe she’d forgiven you by then.
I still haven’t. You sent my mother, nursing a dying husband at the time, a Christmas card that December after your son dumped me for one of his students, but not before knocking her up with one of your grandchildren you claim. In your card, you bragged about the grand baby. And having your son and new daughter in law home for the holidays. Not a word about how you might be sorry that your son kicked her daughter to the curb for some little skank who cheated on her own husband to break up a marriage. Is that what they tell you to do at your Big Box Baptist Church in Sheffield?
I will never forgive you. I will never forgive your son. Too bad the two good ones are dead, George, and his daughter, and the shits are left. You and your boy.
You have no idea what a fine person your granddaughter is. You blew us off, Ruby May. You blew it.
We walked all day. We left the apartment on the canal on Ashland Avenue, which was almost Grosse Pointe, and walked all the way to Belle Isle. Past the giant Goodrich Tire, all the way down Jefferson Avenue, halfway to downtown. Once we got to the bridge that crossed the Detroit River to Belle Isle, we walked that too, and spent hours sitting on the grass and watching the people. Once it started to move into mid afternoon, we walked back across the bridge and made our way into the neighborhoods radiating out from the river toward Hamtramck.
It was dark by the time we found ourselves outside a small neighborhood grocery, sitting on the corner of a street lined with small, tidy post war houses. Lights flickered on in those houses, one by one, down the street as we stood there looking at them, wishing we lived in one of them and, like the inhabitants we imagined just sitting down to dinner, we too had a home, with a kitchen and dinner on the table, and a warm bed waiting for us down the small hallway.
We turned to the door to the grocery, and with a small burst of hope, walked in. The middle aged woman behind the cash register asked if she could help us. She was about to close, she said. “Do you know…is there anybody you know who might take us in for the night?” That was my mother. She looked exhausted. She’d looked exhausted all day. And sad. The woman looked at her, at me. “Why yes,” she said. “I believe I do.” I was six.
I lost my dog to a bully. A “man” who is afraid of dogs, but pushes out his chest and spits every time he sees me. My Henry was a handsome boy, a dobey with his ears intact (docking a doberman’s ears is a brutal American custom and illegal elsewhere. Because we’re assholes.) He never bit the guy, but growled protectively, and now I’ve given my boy away. Now, eleven months out, and I’m still grieving. And feeling guilty. Because I am guilty.
But the day after Henry was gone, I’m at work. Can’t stop crying. Trying to get through the day – and many, many subsequent days – without losing my mind. A coworker, an older woman (older than I; I, in fact, am an “older woman”) is in the kitchen, brewing herself a cup of coffee. “Hello! How are you?” she asks. I tell her what happened, because I can’t not tell her what happened. I guess the whole thing is my fault, now that I look back on it. I should have just said, “Fine, and you?” But I didn’t. I told her what happened in much the same way I suspect one would say, “Oh, it’s a hard time for me. My father passed away.” At least, that was the depth of hurting in which I was desperately dog-paddling.
Once I finished describing my trauma, keeping my head down as I washed a cup in the sink so she couldn’t see me crying, my coworker said, “Jeez, that’s too bad. But, other than that, how you doing?”
Now, I don’t expect anyone in this world to feel about a dog the way I do, (although millions do), but I do expect someone to have more sensitivity than that. Had she lost her child, I doubt anyone would ask her the same question.
She was young, not particularly attractive, but had the expression of one who thinks she is. She was tall, graceful looking, well dressed. Very high heels. Very long straight hair. At her table in the restaurant, during a busy lunch hour, her laptop was opened in front of her. She was wearing ear buds. No food. Just the laptop. Maybe a coffee.
I noticed her because she was in my line of vision, but more so because she took out a hairbrush and began vigorously brushing her hair. I mean, with abandon. Flailing arms, hair being pulled out and brushed hard, flying everywhere. I could almost see the microscopic detritus from her scalp careening through the room and landing on people’s roasted turkey harvest wheatberry salads and frontega chicken paninis.
Once done, she removed the spiked heels and put on even higher ones.
Then there was make up. Foundation, powder, blush, eyes. All of it. Oh, lipstick too. Of course.
It was amazing. And really, really, really gross. WTF is wrong with people?
There are all kinds of dads, that is for sure. I know that millions of people have grown up successfully despite some fathers who were less than perfect. Even if ‘perfect’ is something we should even look for in a dad, which I doubt. Mine was less than perfect, but better than some. Maybe not many, but some.
Raleigh Evan Hamby died on 27 April 1963. He was 45 years old. It was his choice. I was 12. I was also relieved. Not something you want to feel when you’re not old enough to process why feeling that way about your father’s death could possibly be okay.
Being a child in my father’s house was a giant pain in the ass. I couldn’t bring friends home, because he might be drunk. Sometimes, even that didn’t keep him from embarrassing me, because he’d often come to my school, looking for me. I don’t know how she knew he was coming, but Ethel Torbett, the formidable principal of Guyton Elementary in Detroit, Michigan would be waiting for him in the doorway of the school. She was probably in her 60s, her gray hair in curls on top of her head, tall, broad-shouldered and big bosomed, a black dress that went almost to her ankles, shit-kickin’ old lady shoes, and pearls. Before he got there, if there was time, she’d send someone to my classroom to fetch me and whisk me down to the nurse’s office, where I’d hide. From my own father.
On the morning I returned to school after the funeral, Mrs. Homeir, the vice principal, fulsome, sanctimonious, saccharine – and the recipient of a bad red hair dye job – flew from her desk behind the counter to embrace me. “Oh, my dear,” she exclaimed, “you poor thing!” Pulling back from her pink flower covered dress, under which I’m sure she wore one of those cone-shaped 50’s bras the boys loved to look at in the Sears & Roebuck catalog, I tried to wrestle out of her grasp. “How on earth did your daddy die so young?” I panicked. How was it that she had not heard? What would I say? What could I say? I swallowed. I stared at her. I played for time. “Car wreck,” I stammered, and out the door I ran. It was not a complete lie. My daddy had died in his old beat up car, but sitting, parked, in the garage out in back of our rented two flat. When I had awoken on Saturday morning, and no one was home, I walked into the kitchen, looked down into the back yard, and saw my mom surrounded by several Detroit policemen.
Look, I know that everybody has a story, and mine’s no worse, and a whole lot better, than millions. There are kids who are starving right now. Kids in the middle of war. Kids whose parents are crack addicts. I loved my pain-in-the-ass dad. He was smart, and funny, and terribly sad. He was also an alcoholic, a bigot, a tragic southern boy, and a product of his time. He was a combat veteran of WWII, and when he lost his own dad when he was the same age as I was when I lost him, learned a trade so he could help support his mother and siblings.
So, I celebrate my dad. He gave me some life lessons that are hard to beat. I’m a better person for having been his daughter.
“Hey, that your friend over there?” the boy at the pool table asked her as she walked past him on her way back to the bar. “Yes,” she answered, “why?” “Cause I’d like to pop her,” he said and grinned. He was a country boy, and he probably thought he was pretty darn charming. “Well,” she said to the boy, “my girlfriend’s never been ‘popped,’ and I imagine that, when she’s ready, it won’t be you.”
Later, as we sat side by side on our barstools, she told me what the boy had said, what she said in reply. I thought to myself: this is my friend. That’s what she does. I remember thinking how good it was to have a friend like her.
We were at the Cotton Club on Highway 641 South in Henry County, Tennessee. We were college girls at Murray State, 20 miles away, just over the state line in Calloway County, Kentucky. It was a dry county and so the college students who drank came to the Cotton Club.
It was a concrete block building, low, flat, dark inside, and always smelled like stale beer. The floors were concrete, sticky and gross. During the day, the patrons were mostly locals, drinking beer and playing pool. There’d be a few pickup trucks outside in the dirt parking lot, the door would be open – there were no windows – and the sun shining into the dank interior seemed wrong. Also, the locals weren’t our friends, and god knows what we were doing there that day, on a sunny afternoon.
The time to go “South” – which was our euphemism for going to the Cotton Club – was at night, when the place was filled to the walls with college kids and the parking lot was filled with the old cast-off cars the poorer parents gave their kids when they went off to college alongside the sports cars of the rich fraternity boys. Inside, we listened to the best band at MSU, Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie, who played there every weekend. Everyone was drinking PBR and we thought it was the high life we were living.
Years later, after I’d divorced the trumpet player from that same band, and moved to Madison, Wisconsin to attend graduate school, I cultivated a more serious relationship with liquor and had my scotch-neat-with-a-twist in some beautiful taverns. My friend pursued the 60’s sitcom life and I became a radical. She was Donna Reed, albeit Southern style, and I was Angela Davis. Yet we have remained friends.
We are now polar opposites in politics, religion, everything. And yet tonight, her husband lies in a hospital and it may be serious. They do not know yet, but it could be very bad indeed. All she asks is that I pray for her. And that’s one thing I never do.
She walked back to a bar stool one day all those years ago and told me how she’d saved me. I know that was small, and this is big. But I still wish I knew a way to save her now.
She was to join a chorus of community people, not singers so much as volunteers, in a Holiday Open House concert of Christmas carols at one of those old Victorian mansions you see up and down the weeping willow draped avenues of the Deep South. This was Livingston, Alabama in 1979, or maybe it was one of those adjoining towns, York, or Cuba, or Eutaw. She was no longer a Young Bride, but she was still new enough at it to not know exactly what was expected of her all the time. Her husband, the band director at the local college, had assembled some of his students into a small brass ensemble to play at the event and she had agreed to sing. She stood just behind the red-headed baritone player. She waited between songs while the musicians, including her husband on trumpet, played seasonal instrumental pieces, and she looked down at the baritone player. It occurred to her that, unless it is that deep red color, almost a brown really, red hair is not always that attractive. This girl’s hair was quite lovely. It so happened that the girl also had an odd speaking voice, nasal and tinny, that was most disconcerting considering her otherwise pleasant features. But the hair was very pretty indeed. She noted it well. So well in fact that, for the rest of her life, she would remember that night, and looking at the girl’s hair.
By Valentine’s Day, she was immersed in the community theater’s Winter Theater Festival and had to leave the decorating of the house for her husband’s marching band party to the students. She had made a heart-shaped cake though, with pink icing. After rehearsal, when she walked in the back door into her kitchen, the red-headed girl was at the sink. Another student, a boy who had dressed up as a Klansman at the Halloween party she and her husband had hosted – and it was funny only because the boy was African-American – was also standing in the kitchen. She said hello to the girl at the sink and to the boy, smiled at them both, apologized for being late. The boy’s eyes cut to the girl at the sink. He looked back at her and said, “Wow, you are a good actress!” and walked quickly out of the room. The girl looked flustered, set a glass on the counter, and left the room as well. She stood there, alone, looking at the glass on the counter. She had no idea what the boy had meant.
Weeks later, after it was all over and she had moved away, when she would sit in the tiny apartment, the first she’d ever had on her own, with no parents, no college roommates, no husband, and the sun would set without her rising to turn on a lamp, she would remember other things she’d missed. And she wondered how it was that she had misread those events. How had they slipped by her without notice? Why had she not attached importance to them? She guessed that, perhaps, she’d still felt too newly married, that the idea of being married had not completely settled into a familiarity. And yet, wouldn’t you suppose that it would not be until one got to that level of ease, when a woman feels like she’s truly married and that she’s earned the rank, that the seeds of betrayal could more easily be planted? How did complacency find a fertile spot to grown in that short time she was married to him?
Well, maybe it was not complacency at all, she decided. Maybe she was just an idiot. Yes, that must be it.
So, there is this woman in my mom’s neighborhood, maybe 75 years old. She’s a retired Army nurse. She has a helmet of dyed black hair, and eyes of steel. She never smiles. She grew up in Detroit and disdains its descent into chaos. I do, too because I grew up there as well and I remember what a great city it used to be.
Anyway, she’s in her front yard one day, just standing there, and two neighbor boys, one white, one black, about 8 or 9 years old, ride by on their bikes. They stop. Hey there, Miss Joanna they say, grinning widely. She studies them for a split second. Those are some icy eyes she’s got. Just keep moving, she says.