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Monday, July 31, 2017

(18) DAD CAME TO MY RESCUE WITHOUT MORE THAN A SILENT GROAN.


April 20, 1971
San Francisco
From Vonnie to her father
     This is for us.  I guess it's the first real written communication we've ever had.  You've brought me up, protected me, stood by me, loved me.  I feel so deeply for you it hurts.
You've got three children going in good directions and one that's going out of orbit.  Once in a while I find someone I think may be a little bit comparable to you, get disappointed, and start giving up again.  I know you're not perfect, but you've been my whole world as far as being a man, a father, is concerned.  Daddy, you're so good, please help me find someone that can measure up to half the man you are.
     I just can't seem to find myself, whoever I am.  Remember when I was a kid?  I was always in trouble.  A teenager?  Still in trouble.  Does it ever ever ever end?  All I want is to be loved and to love, with all my heart and soul.  That's what I was cut out for, not a Doctorate like Kathie, not an athlete or hip pilot like my brothers.  Just a plain lover -- for one person.  
Daddy, I love you.  Please don't give me up as lost.
Mom, your photography course is coming along beautifully.  Keep the pictures coming,

May 24, 1971
San Francisco
From Vonnie to her mother
     It's been a year now.  It doesn't seem possible that that  little tow‑headed, thumb‑sucking, freckle‑faced girl who couldn't leave you for one single night, who couldn't go to sleep without the burning, yearning kiss goodnight, has been separated from you for so long.  It's sad.
     I wrote to Dad a couple of weeks ago.  I've been trying so hard these past months not to ask for help.  But I just couldn't hold out any longer.  As usual, he came to my rescue without more  than a silent personal groan.  How fortunate we all are to have him.  His goodness surely outweighs his shortcomings.
       In 1975 Vonnie returned to Massachusetts, as she did every summer, and rented a small house in Quincy.  Michael, now eleven, had been living with his paternal grandparents since Ted and Joyce had divorced.  His mother spent as much time with him as possible, meanwhile supporting herself with a trade she had picked up in San Francisco ‑‑ bartending.
     In mid July Vonnie called me late one night, sounding desperate.  She said she had had insomnia for weeks and was exhausted.  "I just can't sleep, Mummy.  It's never been this bad before."  My poor baby.  I knew what it was to spend too many hours staring at an empty ceiling.  I gave her the name and telephone number of my sleeping pill doctor and a lot of sympathy.
    That was all I did.  In hindsight, I asked myself why I didn't go to her and beg her to accept the help we both knew she needed.  Alcohol had disabled Vonnie as surely as the accident had disabled Kathie.  Why didn't I hurry to her side the night her voice reached that desperate pitch, put my arms around her, and promise her we'd beat the demons together?
   Hindsight, like Fate, is irreversible; it only exists to torment you.  The way to deal with hindsight is to accept what can't be changed and forgive yourself for your sins of omission.  But it takes time.  And a lot of staring at empty ceilings. 
January 19, 1976
Weymouth, Massachusetts
     I was in the middle of a group tennis lesson at the Cohasset Tennis and Squash Club when I saw Ed and Ted standing at the window overlooking the courts.  I smiled and waved, pleased to see them but wondering why they were there.  Then I saw they were beckoning to me.
     I don't remember whether it was Ed or Ted who told me Vonnie was dead.  Dead?  That was impossible.  How could a mother be volleying tennis balls without having the slightest foreboding that her daughter . . . dead?    
     Ed said he and Ted were going to South Shore Hospital to identify the body.  "We'll drop you off at Weymouthport on the way," he said.
     "No, Ed!"  I understood that he wanted to spare me, but I didn't want to be spared.  "I want to come with you."  I had to be a part of this ritual, no matter how terrible it might be.
     Ed and Ted went into the small, antiseptic hospital room first.  I lost courage and hung back.  Ed came out a few minutes later, his face a mask of stoicism.  Ted was gone longer.  When he returned, red eyed, he said, "It's okay, Mom.  She looks as if she had just fallen asleep."
     I approached my lifeless child, her blue, blue eyes closed forever, her irrepressible spirit stilled.  The nurse by my side wept with me.
     Ed said he couldn’t go to the funeral; it would be too painful. Taking his father aside, Tim said he understood how painful the funeral would be, "but Dad, I need you to be there.   We all need you now more than we ever have in our lives."
     His father answered falteringly, "But I'm afraid I'll cry."
     "That's all right, Dad, we'll cry together and comfort each other.  Do you think I want to picture you at home alone instead of beside me at a time like this?  It's okay to cry, Dad."
     The church pews were filled, those in the rear occupied by friends from our 31-year-old daughter’s other world, friends who hung out at the cafes on Quincy Avenue where she bartended and cracked jokes and played pool.  We didn't know them, but they knew and loved our daughter, as their frequent outbreaks of sobbing testified. 
VONNIE PERFORMS FOR POSTERITY.  IT CAME
TOO  SOON. . . .
     During my consultation with Reverend Atkinson, he had asked me what Vonnie was like.  I told him she adored her eleven‑year‑old son Michael and her family—her brothers, her sister, her parents.   Everyone loved her for her exuberance, buoyancy, and above all her sense of humor.  She was a clown who loved to make people laugh.  Her favorite attention getter was to blandly turn one eye inward to express disbelief, perplexity, surprise, and a variety of other emotions.  When the pastor included these observations in his eulogy, a fresh outbreak of sobs came from the back of the church.
     Vonnie had one trait I was unaware of:  extreme
reticence about a subject she found too distressing to discuss.  None of her other-life friends had any idea,
until they attended the funeral, that her beloved sister Kathie was in a wheelchair.
MICHAEL AT ELEVEN
     Oh beauriful golden-haired, freckle-faced girl, the spittin' image of your Daddy when he was a brash, young, laughing Irishman, we cherish the thirty-one years you brightened our lives.
     Ed never talked about Vonnie after she died.  His feelings were evident in our address book, where I came across her name and telephone number angrily scratched out, again and again and again.
Note and sketch by Margo . . . 
     I remember Vonnie so clearly, I can still see her sun-peeling nose, her Celtic eyes.  We were Huckleberry Finn girls, we never played dolls.  I remember sloppy summer afternoons spent at (and  sometimes under) the Yacht club, our rookies, amazing sleepovers, flashlights, potato-chips.  We ate periwinkles plucked off Little Big (Cohasset escargot); we built peculiarly engineered lookouts in the cedar trees over my mother's rock-garden.  
     I remember sneaking out of my house in the middle of the night to keep a 'let’s sneak out!' rendezvous with Vonnie.  When I got to her house, she was obviously sound asleep.  I hit her parents’ windows by mistake with my alarm clock pebbles & all the lights except Vonnie's turned on
instantly.  The infamy, the sheer stinging humiliation.
     Vonnie grew up before I did.  I remember she got a bra (padded, but as any teenage boy will tell you,  ' boobs is boobs') & a perky Doris Day look going.  I was still back in the dirt trying to get my undershirt on right side forward, a dumped over laundry basket of a child, knee socks perpetually melting down my legs like ice cream in the August sun.
     Vonnie & I never fought, pretty amazing, since my brother Bobby & I routinely tried to kill each other. . . .

2 comments:

  1. I'm not on the blogs often, but this is one of my favorites...

    Slowly but surely I will make my way through all your stories. And, may I add, your illustrations by Margo are exquisite. Margo, if you can hear me, I think you should be the official illustrator of everything this family publishes, from board books to bound volumes. Your work is comparable to Tasha Tudor, Kate Greenaway - the original sketches for A. A. Milne's Pooh come to mind as well.

    Magnificent work, ladies. Thank you!

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  2. It's October, and I don't remember if I ever called Margo's attention to your praise of her sketches. I'll do that now--thank you, rhapsody.

    ReplyDelete