I rarely saw much of my dad in my early childhood. Two years before I was born, he landed a job at the Ford plant south of Atlanta that was over 50 miles away from our home. Since he was new to the unionized workforce, he was relegated to the night shift, so when I was sleeping, he was at work, and when I was awake, he was sleeping. As I got older, it felt like he was a mirage I only saw occasionally. Even on the weekends, he spent more time sleeping or napping than anything else because the night shift distorted his natural sleep patterns.
At the time, we lived on a small rectangle of land wedged against the perimeter of my paternal grandfather’s pasture. My grandfather had once farmed the land, but it had long since been handed over to grazing cattle. We lived in a single, narrow trailer, a tin can of a house that rattled and rocked when storms rolled through. On one end sat the small living room crammed with modest furniture that screamed a 1970s-era vinyl with a psychedelic pattern. The kitchen and dining area were fused into what would pass for a hallway in most houses. We couldn’t pull the chairs out from the table too far without blocking traffic moving through the house, not that we ever had many visitors. From the kitchen ran a long, dark hallway that led to a single bathroom, my tiny bedroom, and my parent’s larger bedroom.
That hallway was the stuff of nightmares when I was a kid. It featured a couple of small opaque windows that were wedged up near the ceiling and let in very little light. Since my dad slept during the day, my mom had covered their bedroom windows with the thick, sticky paper that most people used to line their kitchen drawers, so there was even less ambient light filtering in from the largest room at that end of the house. As a kid, I often felt the walls were moving when I tip-toed down the seemingly pitch-black hallway. The meager hall light that hung on the wall barely illuminated the floor, much less brightened the path down the endless dark gash that greeted me whenever I stood in the kitchen. Needless to say, I preferred to play in the living room or outside.
On most days, it was just my mom and me. I was an only child at the time, and my mom stayed home to take care of me. A preternaturally nervous woman who worried way too much, she watched over me like a hawk. I couldn’t so much as breathe funny or sniffle without raising my mother’s anguish. She had lost her first child over two years before I was born, and the fact that I was born prematurely and seemed to get sick a lot didn’t help her fear that I’d evaporate like the morning fog on a cool fall day.
My mom has never been a social person. While we lived in a sparsely-populated, rural area of North Georgia, we did live near relatives including two wonderful great aunts who were just steps away from our front door. Nevertheless, my mom kept to herself, and that meant we spent countless hours together. To a kid time is already slow and sometimes painfully so, but it’s worse when there’s a large gulch of time and little in the way of entertainment.
In spite of the frequent boredom, many of those hours weren’t wasted on unfounded worries and concerns or spent in anguish over our self-imposed isolation. My mom had a plan and it involved molding me into the little man she thought I needed to be. She had never really had the opportunity to dedicate much time to or finish her own education, and she decided early on that would not be the case with me. From the moment I could talk, she started teaching me the basics. I remember sitting on the floor of our living room with my mom as she looked over my shoulder teaching me how to write my ABCs in one of those large-lined tablets common at the time. She’d chastise me for being sloppy and make me do it again. I learned very quickly that her exacting standards didn’t just apply to writing but to everything I did. To this day, I can’t make my bed sloppily. I just can’t.
Every once in a while, I’d wake up early and wander into the living room to find my dad still awake after his night shift. Most mornings he’d already be in bed by the time I woke up. In my memory, it always seemed to be a bright, sunny day when my dad was still up in the mornings. The living room in our house had these large windows at one end and when it was sunny, especially in the mornings, the rays would filter through the dusty curtains and make the room glow to the point that I had to squint when I looked in certain directions.
If dad was in a good mood, he’d sit on the couch after breakfast and play some of his records. He had one of those old console stereos, the ones that stood about thigh-high on an adult and were as large as a coffin. Inside sat a turntable, a radio tuner, and various large silver knobs that adjusted the bass and treble. It took a while before I was tall enough to peer inside, but I’d climb up on it and try to play with the knobs much to my dad’s dismay.
In those years, before my dad’s disappointments overwhelmed him, before a darkness came over him that would cast a pall over the rest of his life, he sang. Not loud or obnoxiously, but amazingly soft for a man with a deep voice. I could barely hear it over the records he played, but sometimes, I’d lean into him to hear his voice echo through his chest as we sat on the couch together. I loved that sound. I still do. I hear it sometimes when I think of him.
Outside of those glowing moments, my mom and I trudged along in a daily routine fit for a couple of farmers except we did housework and practiced our ABCs. In the space between chores and studying, I played outside a lot. I visited with my great aunts next door and helped them in their garden. Some days after we’d spent the morning working in the garden, they’d make me lunch. They baked the best bread and even made some vegetables palatable to a terminally-picky little boy. That bread and their green beans were the stuff of legend, to me at least, but unfortunately, they took the recipes to their graves.
When I played alone, my overactive imagination often got the best of me. I’d make up elaborate stories and play them out in my head. I would pretend I had a baby brother and have full blown conversations with him in my sandbox. Amazingly, imaginary little brothers are very cooperative and respectful of older brothers. Real ones, no so much.
That summer in 1975 came to a close with change in the air. My mom got fat. Not really, but she grew a large belly that was bigger than me by the time Christmas rolled around. She had talked about me having a baby brother or sister for some time, but it never really resonated with me until the day my mom had to go to the hospital. That’s when it hit me, and I wasn’t happy.
Suddenly, our tranquil little habits were disrupted. I was uprooted from the house and deposited at my maternal grandparents, while my dad took my mom to the hospital. I had grown accustomed to always being with my mom. That was our routine, but now, this baby was taking precedence over me. I didn’t want to stay with my grandparents, and apparently, I was very clear about this because at some point during the melee I kicked my grandmother. I was such an awful, spoiled brat that my grandmother, a dour, stern woman, relented and called my dad while he was trying to get some rest as he waited for my mom to get to the point of giving birth. Dad tried to reason with me over the phone, but I fretted over reasons for why he had to come get me. Eventually, he gave up and joined me at my grandparents’ house. That quelled my irrational behavior for a bit, but only for a little while.
A few days later, I was reunited with my mom when she returned home with my real baby brother in tow. My stubborn, boorish behavior fell by the wayside momentarily as I looked at the big, squishy-faced baby that slept even more than my dad did. I remember being elated at the sight of him and thinking of all the things we’d do together. Peacefully, of course, like brothers always do. I’d take care of him, and he’d let me. That’s the way it would always be, or so I thought.