Recently I came across this photograph of my father. It was taken in 1952, three years before the movie Rebel Without a Cause came out. My father was James Dean before the real James Dean had truly “become” James Dean.
I can see why my mother had married him two years previously. He’s got that sexy, brooding, bad-boy look about him that every 23 year old girl falls for.
Fortunately, most of us snap out of it.
I suspect that by the time this photo was taken, the honeymoon was long since over. My father was drunk in this picture, just as he had been in every other picture that was taken of him as an adult. He was even drunk in his wedding pictures.
My mother had lived a rather sheltered life. Her parents weren’t ones to drink to excess. Her dad protected her as much as he could, right up until his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in World War II. My mother was 17 at the time, and the family was plunged into poverty.
She carried on, living with her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children in a tiny house that was barely bigger than most people’s garages. I’m pretty sure she got married simply to get out of there. Talk about going from the frying pan to the fire.
She stayed married to my alcoholic, physically abusive father for 17 years. You can’t say she didn’t try. They were divorced when I was 3 months old.
I never met my father. He didn’t send me a single card or letter or gift. He didn’t pay a penny in child support. I never heard his voice. I couldn’t have picked him out of a line up.
My mother didn’t talk about him much unless I asked. She did say that he was an alcoholic and that’s why they got divorced. She said he was a sharpshooter in WWII, and that he sometimes liked to shoot blue jays out of the tree from the top floor bedroom window of our house. (The neighbors must have loved that.)
I didn’t know he used to beat her until long after she was dead. I didn’t think about the fact that they’d been together for 17 whole years until recently. There must have been quite a few stories that went untold.
With that kind of an information vacuum, I was free to make up stories about him in my head. I used to think he was strong. I used to think that if he had been in my life I’d have been protected and loved. I used to think I was worse off because of his absence.
I don’t think those things anymore.
Now, I just think he looked like James Dean.