Skipping home after charm school that afternoon, I stopped only once to catch a glimpse of a stranger in the deli’s plate-glass window: teased hair, lips painted fuchsia pink, tweezed eyebrows penciled black — a new me!
I struck a pose and sauntered on. Mother was waiting. “What have you done?” she cried. “Your father’s legacy. Ruined! Gone! Go wash your face.”
That night, I stole the single photograph hidden inside an old Sinatra record album and took my dictionary to bed. Legacy? I looked and looked into my father’s smiling eyes. I ran my finger down his straight nose, around cheekbones high and firm, across his bushy brows. I think I fell asleep with his perfect, sculpted lips pressed lightly to my own.
My mother always says she married my father because he was gorgeous. He was. The photograph, now framed and hanging on my staircase wall, confirms it. Still, a photo shows only a shallow truth. The back story isn’t always as pretty; it’s complicated, murky, sometimes ugly.
My mother, Norma Jean Pittenger, met my father, DeVoe (Joe) Harriott, in the spring of 1944 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “Joe was the best-looking guy on campus,” my mother says. She had seen him around, usually with coeds flocking near like preening pigeons, and admired him from afar.
One fateful day, Joe staggered into economics class, tardy and drunk. The professor was not amused. Mother was. Joe asked her to go for coffee that afternoon. She accepted.
“Surely there were other things you appreciated about Joe,” I said to my mother recently.
“Oh, he was charming, stylish, intelligent, witty, tall, and fun,” Mother answered, “but, God, he was handsome.”
Mother, with her smooth brown skin, long ebony hair, and perfect Pepsodent smile, got the guy.
A few months later, after a night of bourbon and 7-Ups, they were married. Joe pulled Norma into his car and drove straight through Kansas. They tied the knot at a justice of the peace off the highway, two friends along for the ride as witnesses. Mother knew Joe had been married before and that he had fathered a couple of kids (he claimed one daughter), but she didn’t care. She was 20 and in love.
Soon after the elopement, Joe transferred to the University of Minnesota. He and Mother moved to Minneapolis to the bleak Quonset hut village that housed married students. Minnesota winters are brutal and long. I was conceived in November 1945.
Perhaps coincidentally, Joe took to carousing like an old tomcat right about then. “Let’s see . . . I’ve got my ID. Got some money. Got some rubbers,” he would say, patting his right hip pocket as he bolted out the door.
Mother fumed, and I’ve heard this tale more times than I care to remember. Mother, miserable, powerless, wrote letters to Gramma, begging her to take the train from Des Moines to visit.
“Please don’t have any more babies,” Gramma warned, but Mother was already pregnant with my sister.
Years later, eons after Joe died an alcoholic’s death, cirrhosis of the liver, in a sleazy downtown Minneapolis hotel, Mother, full of cocktails, leaned across the kitchen table and jabbed her finger in my chest.
“I know why you’re so f***ed up!” she slurred. “I always left you home alone when I went to the laundromat.”
“Wonderful, I said, “you’d be charged with child abuse for that today.”
“You don’t have kids. You can’t understand,” she retorted.
I should have left the room. I didn’t. I longed to hear more. Her stories are like misplaced pieces from the jigsaw puzzle of my life.
I don’t remember my father; I have no memories of him whatsoever. I know of him only through Mother’s repeated narratives and from what I conjure up in my imagination.
When I was a teenager, I came across a poem Joe had written in school, scrawled in pencil on a scrap of notebook paper, buried with some snapshots, but I gleaned nothing from it. In the shots, Joe looks pleasant. He’s grinning and cuddling his daughters. In one, I’m sitting on his lap; in another, my sister is laughing down at him as he holds her in the air, his back to the camera.
Mother says Joe was out boozing the night I was born. He turned up at the hospital the next morning, hung over. He took one look at me and said, “She’s scrawny, isn’t she?”
“You’re the spitting image of Joe,” my mother says. “And you absolutely adored him.”
She continues, “You’d stand at the window in the late afternoon and wait for Joe to come home. When you saw him outside, you’d shout, ‘Here comes my daddy now!’ ”
When picturing this, I feel a great sadness wash over me; I quickly close the curtains on this scene. I’m unable to gaze into the past for too long without wondering what might have been.
The inevitable end to this tale is actual fact. My mother caught my father with another woman. One rash night, while a neighbor watched us girls, Mother hopped on a bus, traveled downtown to Joe’s favorite hangout, didn’t find him, stalked to a nearby hotel, rode the elevator to “Joe’s door,” and tried to break it down with a fist and a curse.
In the retelling, Joe opened that door and a marriage ended, just like in a B movie. I don’t want to know the grimy details of the encounter and, from there, Mother’s account turns vague anyway.
Joe graduated from college soon after that, which necessitated our move from married-student housing. He packed us off to Des Moines while he hunted for a place to live.
We never saw him again. Mother filed for divorce, found a job, and we stayed with Gram until Mother remarried.
“Didn’t you consider leaving when you knew Joe was cheating?” I’ve asked my mother a thousand times. “And didn’t you ever think about planning ahead?” Mother has no answers.
Joe Harriott was, at best, an attractive, troubled man; at worst, a selfish, colossal jerk. Countless clues pointed to his instability, but my mother chose to ignore them.
I want to hate my father. I want to hate my mother. As time passes and memory blurs, I’ve come to accept these people, my parents. They’re human, flawed and fumbling like the rest of us, after all.
For most of my life, I feigned indifference to my father. While my sister tried desperately to make a connection with “Daddy,” through letters, cards, and telephone calls (I have no idea how she got his address or phone number), I didn’t.
Years later, I learned that I had frequently passed by the very spot where Joe spent his final months while I, full of hope and promise, walked to my first career job in Minneapolis in 1968. I find this both ironic and depressing.
My handsome, intelligent, screwed-up father died at 50 in a fleabag hotel room, sick and alone, having never reconciled with his two (or four?) daughters. What a waste. What an awful, unfathomable waste.
Sometimes I indulge in a reverie. . . . I see a reunion for Joe and me. I look him in the eye and ask, “Why? Why did you leave us?” But Joe, too, has no answers.
The trouble with fantasy is that it distorts truth. When I think of my father, I always see a beautiful, elegant man, a man ambered in time. I see that man in my photograph.
Reality creeps in . . . as the door creaks open . . . I’m face to face with a bloated, wrinkled, washed-out loser. The drinking life is a hard life; it destroys beauty, glamour, potential . . . everything.
Still, my mother’s wrong — I do understand. I understand want, I understand need, I understand loss. This is my father’s legacy.
Dianne Moritz is a children’s book author and regular contributor of “Guestwords.” She lives in North Sea.