Memories of Kenner

This is not Kenner, but take away the plants, and you have a good idea.

—–

I’m in the middle of a memoir written by a woman who was raised by a couple of crazy parents in Long Island, New York. She’s now in her late 30s, an actress and writer living in New York City.

Her father was a packrat, a horder of gargantuan proportions, and her mother was someone who put up with that.

I’m only in the middle of the book, so I don’t know how it all turns out. I did flip to the end to read “About the Author,” which is how I know what she’s doing these days.

She spent her childhood in two homes. The first burned down. The family moved to a second, and swiftly turned it into a garbage dump like the first, complete with rats and rotting pipes and nowhere to comfortably sit due to mounds of trash.

The book is titled Coming Clean. Get it?

The book brought back memories of my first wife and her family. They were not packrats, but I do recall an engine block in the middle of the living room at one point. The house was a shack in the woods in Kenner, Louisiana, which is a western suburb of New Orleans.

The issue was not hording. It was alcoholism, specifically that of my first father-in-law, a freelance carpenter who was the nicest guy in the world when he was sober.

When he wasn’t sober, it was another matter, along the lines of Jekyll and Hyde. Mr. Hyde only appeared to his wife and kids. Even when drunk, other people still saw Dr. Jekyll, a friendly fellow.

But he terrorized his immediate family for years.

His name was Durward and, if memory serves, he built the shack in which they lived. It sat on brick pilings and was in dreadful condition. There were gobs of grease on the kitchen ceiling, and while sitting on the throne in the bathroom, you could look straight down through a hole in the rotting floor to the dirt below the house.

It made for an unsettling squat.

Late in life, Durward — everyone called him Buddy — went on the wagon, spending his later years sober. He was an excellent artist to boot. While I was a member of the clan, Buddy drove an old car, something like a 1948 DeSoto, with a shot undercarriage and sagging upholstery. It provided a rollicking ride.

In spite of the troubles, my first wife was very close to her family, and most every Sunday for the five-plus years we were married we drove to Kenner to sit at the kitchen table for hours with coffee, shooting the fat. No, make that the breeze because the fat hung on the ceiling.

I grew very weary of the endless Sundays there. I wonder if we might still be together except for that. Probably not.

—–

Unfortunate choices

While my first father-in-law was problematical in one way, the second was a problem in another. He was schizophrenic, often housed in mental facilities. This, of course, had its effect on my second wife, which had an effect on our marriage. How not?

I married both women knowing of their past. Would a normal person have done that? Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

I wrote recently of my third wife’s family. Here too are problems but not the sort that will break us up.

I pray not. I’m too old to start over.

My dad died today

us
The two of us in Atlanta around 1989.

NOT TODAY exactly, but at this point in his life, which is to say, as of tomorrow, I will have lived longer than he did. He died in 1991 at the age I am on this day.

Outliving a parent feels strange. I doubt I will live longer than my mother, however, because she made it to 90. I’m feeling quite creaky already, so another decade and a half doesn’t present much appeal.

I never called him Dad or Father or anything like that. I called him Charlie because that was his name, Charles. His middle name was Born. He was a Junior. I was almost a Third, my paternal grandparents’ wish, but my mother put her foot down on that. My father wanted to name me after Confederate Cavalry Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, but that’s when my mother’s other foot came down.

forrestSince Forrest went on to be a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, that name might have been problematic now were I living above the border. But my father, being a lifelong leftist and advocate of “civil rights,” did not admire Forrest for the Klan connection. He admired him for his generalship. Charlie was a Civil War buff, and Forrest was the best general in the Confederacy.

I guess my father just ignored that Klan crap. People rationalize.

Why I never called him Dad I do not know. And I never called my mother Mom or Mother or anything like that. I called her Dee, a nickname my sister invented.

We were a very odd family and remain so today, those of us still breathing. That would be just three — me, my sister and my daughter. No grandkids, no nieces, no nephews, no aunts, no uncles, nada. My mother often called us peculiar. She was referring to Charlie and his family plus my sister and me, her own kids.

She wasn’t referring to her side, the Powells. They were peanut and cotton farmers in the red clay of southwest Georgia, and not peculiar at all, just country folks, but I loved them more than the peculiar clan on my father’s side.

Charlie’s parents were devout Christians, one Baptist, one Methodist, and his one sibling was a lesbian, and so is mine, which explains the absence of nieces and nephews. The peculiarities go uphill from there. Or downhill.

My father and I were clones. We looked alike, sounded alike, had very similar personalities, were both career newspapermen, a field he entered purposefully, and I entered by necessity. He retired early, and I did too. He was a lousy father and, apparently, I am too.

In retirement he became famous in the small world of Haiku poetry. After I retired, I amused and irritated millions here on The Unseen Moon.

Perhaps that count is a tad high.

There were differences too. He lived through the Great Depression, and it affected him mightily. He detested travel, which I love. He married just once, and I married thrice. There was not an adventuresome bone in his body, and I am the opposite.

He was in the U.S. Army in the waning days of World War II, drafted late due to being almost 30 and having a wife and kids. He was sent to Korea on a troop ship. Yes, Korea, and he had a desk job. I never asked him about that experience. Wish I had.

We didn’t talk much.

On discharge, he returned to Georgia, never wanting to leave again. He had been an Atlanta newspaper editor when drafted, but he returned to start a rural life of chicken farming and writing short stories for pulp magazines. That didn’t pan out, and in about five years he was back in the newspaper business, this time in Florida.

Similarly, I left the newspaper business for a spell when I was in my early 30s in New Orleans, and it too did not pan out. I returned to newspapering in Texas.

We were both boozers, and we each stopped in our mid-50s. Life improved immensely for both when we took that smart step decades apart.

But I was never the drinker he was. I was an amateur in comparison.

I did not much like him, and now I’ve outlived him. Well, hold off on that because he died in the evening of his last day, so I won’t have outlived him till tomorrow.

He died in a hospital in Atlanta where he was overnighting for a colon cancer checkup. His cancer was in remission, they learned on the day he died from a massive heart attack right there in his hospital bed. We didn’t even know he had a heart issue.

I was in the Houston Chronicle newsroom that evening. I phoned him, and we spoke briefly before he brushed me off as he was wont to do. We hung up.

Within minutes, my sister called and said he was dead.

And tomorrow morning, I’ll wake to a day he never reached.

The Goddess willing.

Thinking back …

New Image

YESTERDAY MORNING, after hard work in the yard, I was sitting at the dining room table after second breakfast, cereal. My child bride had returned to her pastry workshop, so I was alone, gazing out the window toward the distant Alamo Wall.

With elbows on the table, I placed my face into my hands, closed my eyes and thought. What a high pile of memories.

Three-quarters of a century of breathing combined with an adventuresome, sometimes reckless personality lead to all kinds of crap, most still alive in the cranium.

Three wives, two countries plus a Caribbean island, two languages, planes, parachutes, motorcycles, hot-air balloons, mind-altering materials, a number of jobs but only one of any duration. I did stick with that, which was good, and why I’m here right now.

Dancing in clover.

I wonder about people who live in a more linear fashion. Finish school, a real profession, marriage, have kids, grandkids, buy a home and stay put for decades. Take vacations every year to places like Paris, then head home again.

Yes, I know far fewer folks live like that these days, but many still do.

I ponder if I would have preferred that. Some moments of my life have been pure terror. Try two divorces for starters. Once I had a small plane spin out of control, but it got leveled off. Once I flew into a cloud bank with no training on how to deal with that. And once I overflew a rural runway and ended up in the weeds.

Drive a motorcycle drunk? Count the times. Other stuff so absurd I’m not even going to share. Yet, there I sat at the table, full of cereal, low-fat milk and chia seeds while my child bride was baking brownies, and the sun was shining in a cool, blue sky.

An old man’s father

MY FATHER WAS born in 1915, two years before the United States entered World War I.

I was born 29 years later in the penultimate year of World War II. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were still walking the Earth.

My father and I were very much alike, the good and the bad. He was a newspaperman. Me too. I probably wouldn’t have been one had he not blazed that trail. I wonder what I would have chosen otherwise — or what would have chosen me, more likely.

I never heard him call himself a journalist even though he had a journalism degree. I’ve never called myself a journalist either. I’ve never even taken a journalism course.

My former coworkers used to say, “And it shows.” Hilarious.

I consider the term journalist pompous.

He was 6′, 3″ tall, and so was I. I’m probably not anymore. They say you shrink a bit in time, and I’ve not measured myself in decades. But I’m still probably taller than you. He was a good-looking guy, and so was I, something that gives you a leg up in life.

I’m still not chopped liver in the geriatric category.

dad
Him

We both retired early. He got out at 49 due to an inheritance. I fled at 55 because I was eligible and also because some of that inheritance had dripped down to me. My maternal great-grandfather, a very successful farmer named Dard Moree, owned a huge chunk of Worth County, Georgia, at one time.

My grandmother remembered Dard paying the field hands from a travel trunk stuffed with cash.

My father wanted to be a writer all his life. I never did, though I discovered I had talent after I retired. He was very good but too painstaking. After he got out of the Army in 1945, instead of returning to newspapering, he moved the family to my mother’s parents’ farm in Southwest Georgia, near a town called Sylvester.

He constructed a small writing room apart from the main house and started typing short stories for the pulp magazines that were very popular in those days before television distracted everyone. Simultaneously, he became a chicken farmer.

But neither the writing nor the poultry panned out and, by 1951, he was back in the newspaper business down in Florida where we relocated.

When he retired at 49, he and my mother moved back to the farm in Southwest Georgia because it was theirs by then. He started writing again, but poetry, not prose. He was very good. He finally focused on haiku, and became quite “famous” in the small haiku world. Two of his slim books are listed on Amazon, one for the incredible price of $58.

I too have a better than average skill at prose. I’m lousy at poetry. I’ve never published anything on paper, just online. My favorite is Dark Girl in the Blue Dress.

Where my father sweated the proverbial bullets over his writing, I never did. It seemed to flow out seamlessly when the inspiration hit, and it almost always struck me as I awoke at dawn, the ideas. My scant writing career took place during the decade of my 60s, nothing before or after. I don’t know why. The Muse was born late and then she died.

My father drank too much, but he quit in his mid-50s. I also drank too much, and I also quit in my mid-50s. FYI: Life improves spectacularly when you stop boozing.

In the 1980s, my sister once shared a joint with him, but he loathed it, and never did it again. I, on the other hand, am quite fond of mind-altering substances.

We were never close. I didn’t like him much though others did.

He died suddenly at age 75 in 1991. And I turn 75 next month.