Someone from Somerset, or a group
of them, beat him for embezzling their money.
That’s what my older brother, Charley,
told me. But Mother, back then, said
he was robbed in an alley and came away
with a broken arm and over a hundred
stitches in his face. This was back
in the mid-60s, in downtown Pittsburgh
when Father was seeking another job.
Mother relented after that, according
to my oldest sister, Holly. Mother said
he could live with us in our new town
to start over, once they sold the farm,
but never would he leave Pittsburgh
where our grandmother was buried.
A strict Presbyterian, his mother
demanded his obedience even in death.
She raised him to be like his father,
a rising minister who died too young,
saving a child who fell into the swollen
Ohio River on a Saturday youth outing.
But grandmother’s big, gregarious son
with a bright smile and wavy brown hair,
had desires other than the seminary
and went against his mother’s wishes.
Drafted into the Army after college
and leading a platoon into Germany,
he saw his life play out differently,
and upon his return home to Oakmont,
met and married our mother, who
at twenty, was eight years younger,
but, many ways, so much older than him.
With a disposition like his mother’s,
he gravitated to her sharp wit, blonde
curls, and cute, athletic figure. She
lived on her own in New Kensington
and, though being a good Presbyterian,
our grandmother didn’t approve of her,
her doctor father, or her baby daughter.
Standing over Mother’s grave decades
later, I wonder what she saw in him.
What was it that kept them together?
Though long after they separated, they
never divorced. Why did they keep that
connection? How could the difficulties
of raising a family, the endless struggle
of navigating through the times and their
day-to-day lives create such a problem?
Oh Mother, tell me, were you the villain
in this domestic tragedy or the heroine?
When the time comes and we all meet
as a family again and greet your husband
will the river run sweet and welcoming
or will the torrent destroy old illusions?
Holly said the Korean call-up to active duty
in 1950 surprised them both. Father worked
in town as a stock broker, but to Mother’s
shock, was soon back in the army. She
proceeded to have three children in three years
to keep him stateside on a post in Indiana.
Afterward, when they returned to Pittsburgh
to the upper-half of their yellow-brick house,
it was clear they needed more room
and while others moved to the suburbs,
they chose instead to buy a working farm
in the Allegheny Mountains near Somerset,
much like Mother remembered from her
grandparents who would have her family
over to their farm for Sunday dinner.
But Mother struggled running the farm
and raising us kids, with Father never around,
commuting to and from the city.
Two years later, after days of loneliness
and endless hours of young children,
Mother joined Somerset’s social scene
for her nightly sanity and unknowingly added
to Father’s financial situation. Three years
later his company fired him for borrowing
heavily from his clients. Charley swears,
Mother was having an affair in Somerset,
and he tried to buy back her love. Holly says
it was the cost of the farm that did them in.
Yet, Allison and I watched Mother’s country
club friend close in on her like a hungry fox.
In the end, Father returned to Pittsburgh,
and Mother moved us alone to Gettysburg,
a college town east of the Alleghenies.
He searched for work and was mugged.
Mother sold the car, became a fraternity
cook and a maid at the seminary.
We lived in a large Victorian house –
college boys renting the rooms upstairs,
while we kids slept in the basement, next
to the boiler, where our anger festered:
we hated our parents for selling the farm
and for destroying their marriage.
My sister Holly said our father begged
Mother to return with him to Pittsburgh,
but she couldn’t face her father again.
An abusive man and alcoholic, our
grandfather ran a medical practice
in his New Kensington home where
he raised his three children with tough
love after the death of our grandmother,
his young wife – this was back in the 30s
when she succumbed in one week’s time
to tuberculosis breathing Pittsburgh’s
filthy air – according to the newspaper,
but, as told by the longtime housekeeper,
she died of a self-inflicted abortion
given his disposition and her desperation.
Ten years later, grandfather’s temper
erupted over Mother’s emerging pregnancy
and her refusal to handle things privately.
In the late 60s, Mother insisted
we visit our father at Thanksgiving.
He shared a tiny apartment
in Pittsburgh with an Army vet
who smelled of liquor and sweat.
Father, driving taxi, used his tips
for Thursday’s feast: a chicken
dinner served at a dinette table
with too few chairs to sit together.
We spent the weekend watching
Ozzy and Harriet on a black-and-
white TV while Mother, we guessed,
entertained her Somerset friend,
the man who tore his family and ours
apart. Finally, they could be together,
intimate in our house. He wanted
Mother to live with him, but she refused,
not with us watching her as teenagers.
We were incredulous that she invited
him back into her life. We hated him
for talking to us like nothing was wrong.
At Thanksgiving, stuck in Pittsburgh,
we told our father – my sister Allison and me –
but he said Mother deserved to be happy,
and he wouldn’t do anything, given his
situation. Shocked, we didn’t understand
his purple lesions, the deep cough.
When we left on Sunday, he hugged
us and cried, not wanting to say goodbye,
but no longer the man we remembered.
One cold afternoon in March, four
months later, Mother had us sit down
after school at the kitchen table.
She told us Father had died of cancer
that morning, Holly at his bedside.
He wouldn’t seek treatment, she said,
as if to explain why, being only fifty, why
we visited at Thanksgiving, why he carried
his cancer as punishment.
A month later, on a Saturday, we drove
across the state for his memorial service
at his mother’s Presbyterian church.
In the pew, as the minister spoke,
Allison and I nudged each other,
studying Mother sitting beside us,
next to Holly. Mother, we realized,
was crying – tears streaming down
her face, Holly giving her tissues.
We couldn’t believe she was crying
for him. The years spent apart,
the man who stood between them,
we thought she hated our father.
We told each other it was her
fault he died – she should have
done something. Yet, here
she was, not the disciplinarian,
but someone else, someone
letting loose years of remorse,
someone we hadn’t seen before,
someone who once loved him.
Now, I realize, looking back at my
own life, marriage is like a fast-moving
river. My father drowned in its currents.
Once, though, when he was young,
an Army officer returning from Europe,
he reached out and saved her
from a horrible New Kensington
aftermath of an old high school,
Grandfather, furious with her, moved
her across town and disowned her,
but our father wanted her, married
her, and adopted her daughter.
Together, they envisioned their lives
free of his mother and her father,
and as much as she hated what they
did to each other and what happened
to him later, the mugging, the cancer,
there was a moment after the war,
before the farm, before the family
fracture, when they escaped their
past and, like so many before
and after, dreamed of possibilities,
slipping into the glistening waters.