Exerpt From My Memoir
Copyright 2015 Alan F. Zundel
(Excerpt from the beginning of my memoir, Sunshine and Troubled Sea: How I Stumbled My Way Into Adulthood, More or Less.)
Sometimes I have dreams of people shortly after they have died. I had several of my dear friend Ryan after he died much too young, and one of my former colleague Craig the night he died but before I learned he was gone. They show up more vivid, stable, and alive than the other characters in my dreams, as though existing somewhere in the hazy boundary between dream life and our lives when awake.
The year I turned sixty my mother died, following my father four years earlier and my brother Danny two years after Dad. Once again there was a funeral, tears shared with siblings, memories revived. After returning to my home in Oregon I had a dream of my mother and father walking arm-in-arm through empty halls and up and down long stairways, going nowhere, unable to exit the dreamscape in my mind. But they did not seem bothered by this. They were content to be wandering that maze together.
I awoke, the ashes of childhood feelings stirred up to reveal glowing embers of pain and longing that I thought had long since died out. I reached over and touched my wife, reassuring myself of my adult life.
“Are you okay?” she murmured sleepily.
“Just have to go to the bathroom,” I replied.
I was washing my hands in the bathroom sink after relieving myself when I looked up and saw a familiar face in the mirror: bald head, white mustache, sagging jowls. “Crap,” I muttered, my father’s face speaking my father’s favorite word in my father’s voice.
Then I smiled at myself staring into the mirror. “Yeah, you’re a beauty, aren’t you?” I laughed.
The smile, the joke, the laughter—these were my mother’s.
Chapter 1. The Sun and the Sea
Not long after my parents died, my aunt told me she once asked my mother the secret of their happy marriage. “Lots of sex!” my mother retorted. I’m sure sex had something to do with it, but Mom’s sense of humor probably played a bigger part. A slight woman with a hint of Irish fire in her hair and eyes, Mom’s playfulness was more illuminating than any words of wisdom could be. And if there is one lesson life has confirmed for me, it’s that in times of trouble a sense of humor will be more reliably available than sex will.
My father had a sense of humor as well, but it tended toward sarcasm. If my mother was the sun, shining light in my life in so many ways, my father, a sailor during World War II, was the sea. Churning underneath even when his surface seemed placid, you needed to steer your ship cautiously or an angry swell might throw you into the depths. Maybe that’s why I’ve had a fear of deep water since childhood. Even as a middle-aged man swimming laps in my backyard pool at night, I had to fight my body’s absurd conviction that something terrifying was down there ready to pull me under
You would expect the union of my parents’ contrasting personalities to spark into conflict, and it did—but not so much in their marriage. To all appearances they forged a workable partnership that lasted nearly six decades. Where the conflict became visible, to me at least, was in its reverberations on my own halting passage to adulthood, especially my early attempts at romantic relationships. In that area I was a slow learner, as you soon shall see described in humiliating detail. Containing both sunshine and troubled sea within me, I needed a workable partnership inside myself before I could hope to find one outside. This feat required an occasional strategic kick in the pants from a higher intelligence. God—or whatever word you prefer—was more than happy to comply.
* * *
The problem started, as in so many similar cases, with my unplanned conception. My parents met during the post-war years at Belle Isle, a lovely island park in the Detroit River. According to my aunt my mother had plenty of suitors, with a line of young men waiting to visit her when she was in the hospital once for a minor procedure. There are no such stories of my father’s early popularity. Mom’s account of their courtship was amusing at his expense, a “skinny fella” so jealous and insecure that he spied on her and his chief competitor, known in family lore as Freddy the Iceman. Yet she married the skinny fellow, my brother Gary was born to them a year later, and I was conceived a mere five months after Gary’s birth. My uninvited appearance precipitated a need for sexual restraint, as birth control for Roman Catholics in the 1950s was papally restricted to the rhythm method. So much for “lots of sex.”
If sex became scarce money was even scarcer, but government subsidized mortgages for veterans offered the prospect of a home for our family. Sometime between the summer of 1952 when I was born and the summer two years later when my brother Douglas was born—the rhythm method at least slowed the rhythm from one kid a year to one every two years—they bought a red brick tract house in the suburb of Roseville, a modest subdivision two miles north of Detroit’s east side. The house couldn’t have been much larger than the Detroit flat they moved us out of, as it was confined to two small bedrooms, an equally small front room, a smaller kitchen and a tiny bathroom. Gary and I slept on bunk beds in the second bedroom with Dougie in a crib. My brother Andrew came two years after Dougie, so now Frank and Arline had four boys to fit into that cramped space.
Not having anything to compare it with, the house just felt snugly secure and full of life to me, a wonderful environment for a small child—although maybe not so wonderful for adults. My earliest memories of my father do not reflect the strain he must have been under nor the turbulence gathering within him. When I was very young, I recall him roughhousing with Gary and me on the front room floor or tickling our bellies with unshaven beard stubble on what must have been a Saturday morning. He was about thirty, a youthfully thin man who was also thin on top. But my memories of him from that idyllic time are few. He quit a low-paying job with the city of Detroit to attend a couple of training schools, again thanks to veterans’ benefits, becoming a “methods engineer” and landing a job at the Bulldog Electric Company. Gone at work most days and taking what overtime he could, his focus was on supporting our growing family.
My preschool life centered instead on Gary, my mother, and that insidious new child mentor, television. Gary was never really my “big” brother, as I soon grew at least as tall as he was, but almost a second self, a mirror of my own existence. He and I built with Lincoln Logs in the warm spot of sunlight shining through the picture window onto the front room carpet, or tried to push each other off the old tree stumps in our backyard from the former forest cleared for the houses on our street. Mom was always nearby although busy with the babies and keeping the household running smoothly. Sporting bright red lipstick but otherwise no makeup, she was the reliable presence who made our world feel safe. Not the kind to shoo you away when you needed some attention, she could change a diaper or iron a shirt while answering a four-year old’s endless questions with her own odd brand of whimsy: “Where does the rain come from?” “Well, the angels have to pee, don’t they?” The other reliable presence was a big glass tube in a plastic box with rabbit-ear antennae to pick up the four signals in the area, the three network affiliates in Detroit plus a Canadian station from across the river in Windsor. Children’s programming in its infancy was a bizarre mélange of old cartoons, former burlesque comics and puppet shows—our black-and-white telescope on the larger world, pointed through a hall of distorting mirrors.
My life up until school age seemed happy enough, at least what I remember of it. Then in 1958, two years after Andy’s birth and when I was finishing kindergarten, Mom gave birth to a girl. Linda had been the name of choice for each pregnancy but my parents were sick of it after seven years and four boys so they named her Nancy instead. Sometime not long after Nancy arrived my mother found my father hiding beneath the basement stairs crying. Apparently the pressure of raising and supporting so many kids led to a nervous breakdown and he had to be hospitalized. It is clear to me now, though, that the emotional and financial stress in his childhood home was undoubtedly in the psychological background.
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