Daddy in Living Color

I don’t know how long Dad managed to keep the position with the trade school as a watch maker. Apparently something worked, we moved to a better house and neighborhood on Olive Street. I haven’t discussed Daddy in detail, I guess an up period would be as good a place as any to start.

Daddy had become an adult for the first time in his life. I can’t rate him as a father before my birth. I didn’t have to endure his unrestrained immaturity as the older children had. Mother had begun to grow up and take more of the responsibility for us. Quite attractive at 37 or 38, she was no longer a raving beauty. She had wavy, brown hair, a lovely complexion and a good figure for a mother of five. “Don’t stand when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lay down,” she told me constantly. She adhered to her theory through out her life. It was the Southern belle’s solution to avoid varicose veins. She laid down when ever possible or kept her feet propped up. We always knew where we could find her, and we spent many pleasant afternoons lying in bed with Mother. She was quick to tell us who was the beauty in the house. I didn’t have to contend with her vanity. Perhaps in my independence, I didn’t need her approval as my sisters did. I am sure I wanted Daddy’s respect which in his strange fashion, I got.

Lee was the fair-haired child who could do no wrong. Coming home from overseas, almost a man, our world revolved around him. He enrolled in a junior college on his G. I. Bill benefits. Margaret was the steadfast, dependable one. I was never sure if she had any connection with Dad as a person, or just responded to his incredible love for Mother and his five children. He could be ill-tempered, but adored Mother. Fueled by an over-bearing mother and being an only child, he had fanatical loyalty to his children. He believed the most we had was each other. Billy’s hostility towards Daddy was driven by Mother’s incessant harping about him. Because of her despotic loathing of him, he never gave Billy one moment of his time. I suspect, she made him cross, which was the family euphemism for “the Ol’ Man is on a tear.”

Ron was babied beyond words, especially by Margaret and Daddy. I think Ron’s lack of guile, his inherent goodness and sweetness made him an irresistible baby. What ever he wanted he got, but he wasn’t obnoxious with it. It was just to keep him happy, and I expect quiet. I can remember them putting a nipple on a Grapette soda bottle, and of Ron sitting on the porch step and drinking a soda with a nipple.

Dad died ten days before my 26th birthday, but I don’t feel the memories of my short relationship with him is skewed. I think I came closer to seeing him as he was meant to be, than anyone. Daddy was, what is presently termed, an occasional drunk. This is an alcoholic who doesn’t have to drink, daily.  When they do drink, they drink specifically to get drunk. He was never a social drinker; he drank to get drunk, period. I now understand, he dealt with depression and self-medicated with alcohol. In the midst of all the turmoil and an unemotional mother who had sullied him, Daddy had above normal intelligence. He wasn’t a savant or a genius by any sense of the imagination. Having an acute sense of numbers and logic, he would do algebra problems in his head.

Daddy had very little patience with stupidity. Despite his Southern background, he was a pretty liberal and progressive thinker. For someone who was seasoned in a South that still did Rebel yells and flew the Confederate flag, he never instilled prejudice in either Ron or me. He always had patience in explanations to me as I think down deep, he took some responsibility for my being on earth. Patience stopped there. If I was sitting in a room with four other, empty chairs, upon walking in Dad would automatically say, “Get up and give me that chair.”

He had curious, yet endearing habits, and he was a creature of habit in all of his life. At meal times, he insisted on having a linen cloth on the table, which I am sure was another requirement from Price. Coming from a home requiring proper manners, he ate with his left hand in his pocket in lieu of putting it is his lap. Oddly, I insist on having pockets in most of my clothes. Additionally, he was extremely superstitious. He wouldn’t put a hat on the bed. If a black cat crossed his path, he turned around. Failing that he would run over it.

He hated for anyone to touch his fountain pen, watches or cuff links. He was always selfish with his personal possessions. Certainly with five kids, we ruined many a thing for him. He was extremely particular about his shirts being freshly starched and he wore short sleeve shirts on rare occasions.

Dad was cold natured and shivered easily. Mother always insisted the house be kept excessively cold for her to sleep. Getting up in the morning, he would make coffee and light the oven. Shivering, he sat in front of the stove with the door cocked open for warmth. Faithfully, he served coffee in bed to Mother. He would serve me a cup of hot tea in bed. Probably, I was the only child ever afforded that little gift.

Lee and I inherited Daddy’s blue eyes. Lee’s eyes were a slightly lighter blue, whereas mine are a darker blue than Dad’s. Although several of the grandchildren are blue-eyed, Rob’s eyes are the exact same shade as Daddy’s were. He always wore a mustache, and I only saw him without it once. He slipped while trimming his mustache and had to wait for it to grow back. His hair was dark blond, and he wore it combed straight back with a dab of Brylcreem to keep it in place. Radio advertisements and later TV made this little Brylcreem jingle famous: “Bryl-creem, a little dab’ll do ya, Use more, only if you dare, But watch out, The gals will all pursue ya,– they’ll love to put their fingers through your hair.

We were always together with Daddy, and people often thought Ronald and I were twins. Dad loved trains, and we would go to the depot spending hours watching the trains with their sleeping cars and caboose. Granddaddy worked for the railroad, and Daddy spent time at the rail yards when he was a child. Margaret told me that as a young teenage, he would get friends to drive him a good distance from town. Once he was dropped off, he would hop a freight train and ride with hobo companions back to Pensacola. When I was about five-years-old, we were at the train station, and the diesel engine whistled in loud, short blasts. I jumped at least a foot high, wetting my panties. Instantly, he was mad.

At the depot, I would hear the overhead speakers announcing, “Now leaving on Track 5 for Dallas, Santa Fe, Las Vegas and San Francisco.” Passenger trains were the primary mode for transportation, especially for long trips in the 1950s. In the late 1800s, when steam engines were used, many small settlements were clustered along the rail lines. Water and wood were stored at these stops for the steam engines to replenish their fuel. Steam engines needed refueling often, and these locations were spaced out every few miles or so. Many of these tiny, Texas towns exist today.

Dad was a huge history and travel buff. From the time I was six-years-old, I trekked many places with him. We loved watching for Burma Shave signs along the highway. The Burma Shave Company placed five or six, small, wooden signs along the edge of highways, spaced so they could be read consecutively by motorists driving by. Once spotted, we would read out loud: “It gave McDonald that needed charm. Hello Hollywood. Good-by farm. Burma-Shave.” Burma Shave had hundreds of sayings on tiny billboards along America’s highways for 40 years.

As we moved up in status, we began to attend church. My parents clashed on many a Saturday night. On Sunday mornings, we went to church, primarily for Mother to sing in the choir. The reason, I digress at this point, is another of Daddy’s peculiar habits. While dressing for church, he always combed my and Ron’s hair. He held us by our chin and then slicked our hair down with water. Instead of holding our hands, he walked with his hands on the back of our little necks. “Was it for better control or to keep us from escaping?”, I asked, but Mother had no recollection of him doing that.

His hair-trigger temper was famous, but Mother’s ever-present irritability was just as explosive. Even in exasperation, he never struck out at us. He managed a couple of times to have Mother in his line of fire, but never any of the children. I never saw him hit her, but once while drunk, he bit her finger. I do recall seeing blood drip and splatter on the floor. I have often wondered if she put her hand in his face and was part of the problem.

Years later while repairing a lamp, he lost his temper. In a fit of rage, he took a hammer and began beating the television set. Stunned, I watched as he, systematically, beat the metal cabinet. Numerous dents covered the top and sides, but the glass screen was untouched.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wanted or Planned?

On December 1st, Mother turned 18 and on December 10, 1928, LaBaron Caraway Graham, Jr. (Lee) was born. Lee was the closest thing to nobility that had ever occurred to Price. She had a son who detested her and an egoistic daughter-in-law. Uncaring, she had no love for either of them. She quickly and easily replaced them once her noble grandson arrived. On April 2, 1933, Margaret Price was born. She was callously relegated to Cinderella chore maid to prevent Price’s grand plans for Lee from being interrupted. Being named after both her grandmothers held a slim-to-no advantage for my sister. Billy Ann was born on January 27, 1938. She was sent to the hinterland with Margaret.

In a span of a few short years, the family dealt with the Great Depression, a hurricane, losing their homestead and the death of Steede and Price. My parents left Pensacola and moved to Moss Point. Daddy got a job at the ship yards. It was probably the first time he ever actually toiled in a structured environment. He had pretty much bounced around as long as he had his parents there to provide for him and his family. He fancied himself the next Hank Williams. He tried his hand at being an amateur performer with no experience and limited talent. He formed a country swing band named “Kay Graham and the Night Herders.” Mother with her natural, but mediocre talent encouraged his musical ambitions. He also indulged his needs: drinking, drugs, carousing and whoring. Daddy was wild, unrestrained and had a hostile bent.

In Moss Point, my parents were encumbered with the full responsibility of being parents for the time. I suspect that I was the first baby that Daddy ever wanted. Wanted is quite misleading, planned is a better word. I have a hunch the three older kids were the result of intercourse. I can’t envision Dad, immature and selfish, having any joy in fatherhood other than to show his virility. Returning to Mississippi without his parents to provide for them, he needed to keep Mother in line. The rule of the day was to keep wives barefoot and pregnant.

Mother said when she found out she was pregnant with me, and she announced it to Daddy, he told her, “I know already, and the baby is due on March 12th.” She called him a “son of a bitch.”

Dad had to consistently show up to a despised job, take orders from a supervisor and perform menial tasks. For sure, he had never worked before with his hands. Having burned every bridge, he had to start making his own opportunities as he no longer had a free ride. Moss Point was too small to be notoriously erratic. Mother, in all likelihood, fared better than he had at this point. After living in Florida for years, she was near her sizable family. She had all of her sisters to visit and Margaret to babysit for me.

Being the first child born in the post, Price Graham era, I have always been glad this was the period of time in which I was born, probably for the strangest of reasons. When I was born, Albert Einstein was still alive. I have always felt that he was the one human who had the greatest impact on mankind and the growth of the last century. Historically, I was around during his lifetime.

The 1940s were the heyday for movies which were the primary form of entertainment away from the home. During a gangster movie, a character actor uttered, “Oh, yeah, so’s your ol’ man.” Lee kept using this expression until it caught on with the kids. Collectively, we all referred to Daddy as the Ol’ Man when speaking of him. In person, we still called him Daddy.

During World War II, all manufacturing enterprises, however small, had their production geared towards supplying the war effort. The civilian population were expected to make do with prewar goods or make the best they could with what was available. People routinely took their watches, shoes and clothes to be repaired. After the war, the average cost of a wrist watch was relatively high compared to an average salary. When I was slightly over one-year-old, Daddy announced he had a job as a watch maker in Dallas, Texas. He had started tinkering with watch repair. Dad decided he could make a living as a watchmaker.

Establishing a beachhead, Daddy and Lee went ahead to Dallas. Mother, Margaret, Billy and I moved to Dallas by train. Mother went to work in a drug store and then discovered she was pregnant. On February 21, 1946, a wonderfully innocent baby, Ronald Bowman Graham arrived. I was 23-months-old, and I had a new baby doll which I chose not to ignore as I had been.

Margaret was 13-years-old, and she kept us little ones when Mother went to her part-time job in the afternoon. Billy roamed the streets and spent every possible moment in the movies. Lee was 17-years-old and extremely upset with his folks for still having babies. He joined the Navy.

As a two-and-half-year-old, I walked daily with Mother to take Billy to school. Late one morning, I announced to Mother, “I am going to school.” She abstractly replied, “All right.” Shortly, the cold realization hit her that I had actually left the house. Alone and unafraid, I crossed several streets as if I owned them. Spotting the family dog running along the wooded creek bank, the Dallas Fire Department found me. Playing in the creek bed, I was startled when a fireman picked me up. This was my first act of independence.

Shortly after Ron was born, we moved to Texarkana, Texas. Dad had finagled watch-making, in which he had no formal education, into a job as a trade school instructor. This may have been one of his rare circumstances in being at the right place at the right time. Daddy, Margaret, Ron and I rode a train to Texarkana, Texas.

We moved into a humble duplex with the other side occupied by the daughter of the owner. Our semi-invalid landlady was greatly doted on by her daughter, who called her Mother Dear. The house was a small, white clapboard, and we had to share the bathroom with the adjoining family. The rent probably wasn’t $75.00 dollars a month. Margaret set up housekeeping for Daddy, Ron and me. Mother remained in Dallas to work, until she and Bill moved six weeks later. I use to wonder why we always moved by train before I realized – we didn’t have a car.

While living in this modest duplex, I remember going with Billy to pick up Coke bottles. Pulling a rusty, red wagon filled with several stacks of comic books, she collected bottles. Going to a neighborhood store, she returned the Coke bottles for the two-cent deposit. Additionally, she had a going concern in buying and trading comic books. This is one of my few memories of her being normal.

My first recollection of Lee was in December 1947. I was still a three-year-old, and he had just turned nineteen. I was standing behind Mother’s gathered skirt on the front porch. Out of a taxi, popped a sailor with a duffel bag. Peeking around her legs, I saw Mother crying tears of joy. Lee was home from Guam, and his tour in the Navy. My next memory is of Lee taking Ron, Billy and me to the drug store at night. When we came home, Santa Claus had been to the house. It was Christmas Eve, 1947. I later realized, Lee had set us up. Maybe he had been too excited to wait. As I grew older, I knew it was because he didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn with a three-year-old sister and a baby brother. Together again, our family settled into an almost, normal life.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 12:40 am  Comments (3)  
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