The Papa, the Period and the Pier
Grandma’s father was a ne’er do well, a rogue and a roué. He stayed in Canada when Grandma, her two sisters, her brother and her mother relocated to the states in 1918.
The Canadian government had given him an “island” in northern Canada for his exemplary military service during WWI, and Great Grandpa had a large-breasted, soft-lipped mistress who lived with him on the island. He wasn’t going anywhere.
His grandfather had been a trapper who married an Indian maiden when he was in his 30s and his Indian wife was only in her early teens. I’m not sure how that shaped Grandma’s father’s life. But it certainly accounted for his thick head of jet black hair, his high cheek bones and some people said, his love of the “drink.”
Grandma’s father also had enormous charm, wit, and a penchant for gambling on anything and everything. He was a true lady’s man which is probably the reason he managed to marry Grandma’s mother who was an educated and sophisticated woman from Paris, who moved to Canada to be a governess for a high-ranking, Canadian official.
Eventually Grandma’s mother gave up on her philandering husband and sought a better life for her family in the U.S., but he’d still come to the states to visit from time to time, maybe to see the children and maybe just for a conjugal visit, Grandma wasn’t sure.
Her mother certainly would never tell.
Grandma says you never knew when he’d show up or why or how long he’d stay. So it wasn’t a complete surprise the night Grandma was woken up from a dead sleep by her father whom she hadn’t seen in over a year.
She was 13 years old and experiencing her very first menstrual period. (Mrs. Calloway, Emma’s mother had fixed her up with all the accouterments she needed to deal with this symbol of womanhood because Grandma couldn’t bring herself to tell her own mother what was happening.)
Grandma was groggy with sleep, crampy and confused when she opened her eyes to see her father stooped over her bed.
Even in his later years, Grandma says he was as handsome as a man could be, and tall for the time -- with broad shoulders and that head of shiny, black hair with one piece that fell softly onto his forehead.
Her first thought on waking was one of pride and joy. Daddy was here oh boy! Daddy was the handsomest man in the whole world.
But her happiness changed when she heard what her father had to say and smelled the sour odor of alcohol on his breath.
“Get up, get up little one, put on your bathing suit and come with me.”
It was September first and already the night air smelled like fall. What on earth was her father thinking? It was past midnight and the whole house was asleep except her visiting father and herself.So what did you do, we all asked?
“Well I did what he said, I got up and put on my bathing suit because back then you did what your parents told you to do.”Didn’t your mother wake up? Did she know he was in the house?
“I don’t know. She was a bit afraid of him, as we all were. She didn’t buck him ever, and especially not when he’d been drinking, so I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Grandma said she put on her bathing suit, and followed her father out of the house and down towards the direction of Long Island Sound, which was a brisk 5 minute walk.
Her father explained in slurred words that he’d made a bet with some of his new drinking buddies that he’d be down at the dock in less than an hour with his 13-year-old daughter --who’d dive off the pier.
It would be a long way down into the stagnant oil-slicked waters by the dock, but he bet the men she’d do it and do it with a graceful swan dive at that.
He told them to quit their laughing and get ready to pay up because when he said something he meant it. They said no way. No way would he wake up his daughter and force her to dive into the dark waters.
He said “Put your money where your mouth is.”
And that’s why Grandma found herself at the edge of the pier, trembling with fear and wondering if this would be the day she would die, but knowing she had to make that dive or her father would kill her anyhow.
By this time, those of us listening to her story were teary-eyed and angry as hell at Grandma’s unthinking, uncaring, dastardly father. “What a horrid man,” we exclaimed.
“No,” Grandma said sharply, “Don’t say that. He had trouble with drinking and gambling. He had trouble staying faithful and trouble being a father, but he was my
father and the only father I would ever have. So I don’t want to hear you say bad things about him, do you understand?”
We nodded, surprised at the angry look on Grandma’s face.
“Did you make the dive, Grandma?” we asked.
“Of course. I already told you back then you didn’t refuse to do what your parents asked of you, no matter what it was. So I took a deep breath and gathered up all the courage I could find and dove into the water. It seemed like an hour before I heard the splash and felt the cold water against my skin. But I’d done it. I had survived --and I remember so well, my father’s hand helping me out of the water and onto the pier.
“I remember his big smile and how he patted me on the head. I can’t tell you what it meant to me when he took the blanket he’d carried with him and wrapped it around me – giving me a big squeeze.
“Walking home, Father was counting his money and humming to himself, but he kept one arm around my shoulder the whole way home. He told me that I was so brave and had made him so proud, he was going to buy me a new pair of shoes in the morning…and he did exactly that.”
We were looking at each other like “big whoop” but we didn't utter a word.
Then Grandma said, “My father... he might have been many things, but one thing he was – he was a man of his word…and that means something in this world. From my father, I learned to be a woman of my word,” she said, holding her chin higher and more forward than usual.
We all learned that day -- that no matter what horrid story Grandma would tell us about her father in the future -- we were not to ever comment negatively, but just sit tight and listen.
We also learned that for Grandma, an absent, drunken father was still better than no father at all. And though we might have thought being forced to dive off a pier in the middle of the night was child abuse, she remembered the incident as the time her father bought her a new pair of shoes.